Friday, August 24, 2012

Old Times and No Man's Land - A Theater Review and a Festival Wrap Up

Harold Pinter
The Pinter Festival at ACT has been everything a theater festival should be:
  • It was grand in scale : producing three full main stage productions almost simultaneously; hosting numerous auxiliary events including readings, classes and film screenings. 
  • It was focused : if you didn't know what Pinter was about at the start of the festival, you certainly did by the end. 
  • It was courageous : produced with all local talent; taking on a serious often misunderstood playwright and producing his plays for an indoor festival in Seattle's warmest time of the year.
  • It was uneven : the  productions were extremely varied in their effectiveness. 
  • It was addictive : even after the most disatisfying of the shows, you wanted to come back and see the rest; you even hoped that this will be only the first of possibly a few Pinter Festival's that may come over the next handful of years.
Overall, the festival felt like a gift to the city, and I was thrilled to be able to witness it unfold.

I saw The Dumb Waiter and Celebration at the beginning of the festival and wrote about them here. This past week I was able to catch performances of No Man's Land  and Old Times.

Jeffery Frace, Cheyenne Casebier and Anne Allgood in Old Times
Old Times might be my new favorite Pinter play. A married couple, Deeley and Kate, entertain an old friend of Kate's, Anna, in their country house. Soon, however, Deeley and Anna's efforts to each claim Kate as their own escalate the evening's visit into a desperate and brutal journey into all the characters' pasts that leaves no one unscathed. I had read it before but never had seen it performed. I always loved the wonderfully obscure tension that bounced back and forth between the characters like a diabolical three way tennis match. But never had I imagined the breadth of humor that could be mined from the power plays amongst the characters. Under Victor Pappas' ultra-focused and confident direction the three extremely talented performers  (Jeffery Frace (Deeley), Cheyenne Casebier (Kate) and Anne Allgood (Anna)) deliver a surprisingly laugh out loud funny take on the script that manages to hit so much unexpected comedy in the play while still slowly building the extreme discomfort that rests at the core of the piece.

Frace brings just the right combination of casual aloofness and barbed sarcasm to Deeley that allows him to embody both the simplistic empathy and haunting unreliability that makes him the perfect host to this most unusual of evenings. Casebier as Kate is almost Zen-like in her stillness and silence during Anna and Deeley's power struggle which keeps her an important and well heard character even in long stretches where she has no lines (many an actor fail miserably in such a role where they seemingly have nothing active to do). Allgood is both poised charm and striking venom as the evening's questionably intentioned guest from the past. There was a brief glimpse of Allgood's range and affinity for Pinter in Celebration, but here we really get to see an assured, multilayered and memorable performance. 

With these strong performances at its center, what works so well in this production is it ability to take Pinter off the page and deliver it in a lively, unexpected and unsettling way to its audience. Director Pappas, with his actors and design team (Robert Dahlstrom's set is flawless in its simplicity, utilitarianism and elegance, and Rick Paulsen's lighting assists in producing some unforgettable images on the stage), make many subtle but bold choices with the script that give it a broad, tangible and recognizable life that many Pinter productions are too reverential or too intimidated to ever reach. If the Pinter Festival was a great success, Old Times was its crowning achievement (The Dumb Waiter was excellent as well, but I believe Old Times to be a richer and more nuanced play to begin with).

Moore, Crook, Corrado and Harris in No Man's Land
While Old Times surprised in its life off the page, No Man's Land never seemed to get far from a table reading. In this play we have two men, Hirst and Spooner, visiting at the home of the wealthier of the two, Hirst, after having met earlier in the evening at a local pub.Supposed strangers, these men soon find some odd common ground. Their relationship is further strained by two young men, Briggs and Foster, who are sort of assistants to Hirst, whose motives to protect their benefactor and themselves begin to quickly turn all of our assumptions about who these people are and what we are watching upside down.

Frank Corrado as Hirst and Randy Moore as Spooner seem, along with director  Penelope Cherns, to be trying to be following Pinter's script as a piece of music, as if the language is so strong that all you need to do is hop on, deliver it well and let you take it for a ride. The result is a pretty uneven production that produces a handful of interesting moments but doesn't really hold together. By the time Benjamin Harris as Foster and Peter Crook as Briggs arrive, each bringing a bit more of a pointed and welcomed energy to the production, the tone has been set and the proceeding action feels disconnected from what has come before. The problem is most pronounced during the play's handful of extremely long monologues almost all of which are delivered almost as if there is no one else on stage and subsequently, the rest of the life on stage dies. Cherns says in her program notes that "Pinter demands a light touch." It feels here that she touched way too lightly and didn't make the bolder choices that would have given the audience the more visceral experience that this play is designed to deliver.

A testament to the power of this festival is that despite my feelings about No Man's Land I felt even more compelled to see Old Times afterwards. Having seen them both now, along with the initial two one acts of the festival, I wish I had been able to make it to some of the auxiliary events around these shows. I do hope ACT is happy with the results of this experiment and feel  moved to bring us another wave of Pinter works in the future.

The Pinter Festival  plays at ACT through August 26. Tickets here.


Accents : In a festival like this, where a number of Pinter plays are being tackled by the same ensemble at once, I would have loved to see one show done without British accents. Clearly many of Pinter's plays are set in specific locales in England and use language that is distinct to British culture. Yet a number of his plays are unrealistic and non-naturalistic enough that I believe they could weather a true relocation across the pond and have our American actors speak the words with their own domestic accents. We do Shakespeare without accents all the time. Beckett, it could be argued, actually brings a different nuance when done with an Irish accent, but he still holds up marvelously when done with unadorned American accents. In these plays, Celebration, seems to be the play where accents mattered the least. In No Man's Land, I would argue that the accents almost got in the way. It felt like Corrado and Moore sort of fell in love with their accents and played the delivery of their lines more than the action of the play.

Design : While I found the costumes, lights and sets for The Dumb Waiter and Old Times  to be wonderfully effective and visually striking, I felt that the design elements in both Celebration and No Man's Land to be severely judgmental of  the plays' characters. The color choices in both were unappetizing palates with what seemed to be purposefully ill-fitting costumes that pulled the audience even further away from any kind of empathy with the characters. Just as the set of Celebration  didn't read as a fancy restaurant, the set of No Man's Land simply didn't read as the rich house it was supposed to be. Instead of a wall of books and a separate bar, both were crammed into a single unit. The exit door which is supposed to lead to the rest of the house, read more like it lead to a small bathroom or the narrow hallway of a nursing home (I actually thought that Hirsh, when he crawls out of the room having fallen down drunk, was exiting into a bathroom to vomit, not to make his way slowly toward his bedroom elsewhere in the house). Maybe in an attempt to keep the four plays looking dramatically different visually, the design team went a bit too far with No Man's Land in finding a disjointed and claustrophobic counter balance to the cleanly orchestrated and Old Times.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dumb Waiter and Celebration - A Theater Review

It was with great enthusiasm and excitement that I greeted the news, earlier this year, that ACT would be producing a Pinter Festival this summer. Despite the best of intentions on my part, I had missed all of the installments of their Pinter Fortnightly series to date and was hoping to be able to, at some point, get a glimpse of the work they were doing with the plays of this seminal playwright. A festival seemed just the thing, and if my introduction to it with these two one act plays is any indication, it is going to be an event Seattle will be talking about for quite some time.

The Dumb Waiter, one of Harold Pinter's earliest plays,is the perfect choice to kick off this festival as it is almost a case study in what lies at the heart of all of Pinter's plays. It is a taut tension filled piece that deals even-handedly with both the banalities as well as the essence of life. Here making tea and deciding the best way to kill someone are discussed with equal import. It straddles the fence perfectly  between gritty realistic drama (that Pinter's self-appointed protege David Mamet took and ran with) and existential mindscapes (that Pinter's acknowledged influence and later friend and colleague Samuel Beckett so often employed). It is darkly funny, even menacing (a favorite word amongst Pinter critics), and challenges its audience to view the world a bit differently by its end.

Darragh Kennan and Chuck Leggett in The Dumb Waiter
Two hit men wait in a room for their next job to arrive. These two roles are played with the perfect combination of light handed physical comedy and pointed penetrating rage by the wonderful talents of Darragh Kennan as Gus and Charles Leggett as Ben. Both men show equal comfort and skill at lounging pensively in a long Pinter silence, as well as quickly exchanging banter back and forth. They and director John Langs make sure that the pace and timing of the play is spot on. I've read this play a number of times and seen it produced before, but ACT's seemingly flawless production, will be the one that lives in my memory from now on.

(For a full disclosure I should mention that I saw these plays in preview, so any critiques I have from here forward could certainly have been addressed by opening night.)

Celebration, one of Pinter's later plays, makes for a very interesting partner with The Dumb Waiter. From a claustrophobic single room with two characters in the first play, we move to a busy restaurant with eleven characters in the second. Where The Dumb Waiter seems to have a tight kinetic energy driving it forward, Celebration has a looser more collage-like feel. Like Pinter's other later works, this play is more confident in its tangents. It takes the characters and audience quickly from point A to point C sometimes never bothering to circle back to B.

Frank Carrado in Celebration
Yet the precision I found so remarkable in the first play, I found to be somewhat lacking in the second. Director Langs here has chosen for his cast of diners to play most of the one act boisterously drunk. This energy tends to muddy moments that call for focus and worse yet, tends to allow the audience to write off the characters' sometimes jarringly odd behavior as simply the drink talking. The audience I was with forgave the characters so much that they were laughing hysterically through most of the show (I know that in most cases this would be a good thing, but it was off here). This seemed to encourage even more broad comedy from the cast. While clearly Celebration is one of Pinter's lighter plays, light for Pinter is still pretty dark and, yes, menacing. This production missed those elements.

That said, the framing of the two pieces with controlled zen nature of Darragh Kennan at the beginning of The Dumb Waiter and then with the final monologue as the "waiter" in Celebration, bookended the evening perfectly and made me eager to come back to check out Old Times and No Man's Land when they join the festival in a few weeks. Congratulations to Kurt Beattie and Frank Corrado for having the courage and drive to bring this festival to Seattle audiences.

The Dumb Waiter and Celebration  play at ACT through August 26. Tickets here.


Set and Staging : I sat at the side of the thrust stage, as did about 1/4 of the audience. The staging on the first play was little tough at times, seeing only the back of one actor's head as he blocked my view of the other actor, but overall passable. The fact that I couldn't really see the dumb waiter or its contents when it opened, which clearly the audience at the front of the thrust could, was a bit distracting.

In Celebration, however, these issues became a bit worse. The biggest challenge of a play like this, from a staging point of view, is that you have 4 diners at a single table who don't get up much during the show. If you sit them traditionally around the table, the audience is going to miss one or two actors for almost the whole show depending on where you are sitting. A tough problem to fix for sure. But the choice here to have all four actors cheated to the upstage part of the table, leaving 1/3 of the table unadorned an unused, crowded the actors together in a way that didn't really make sense within the play. Plus, from my side view, they were often almost lined up in a row where I couldn't really get a good look at any but one of them at a time.

The set for The Dumbwaiter was perfect utilitarian excellence and the use of lighting to punctuate moments in the play, ingeniously effective. Yet the set and costumes for Celebration seemed to make an unnecessary negative judgement on the characters. Though it clearly is supposed to take place in a very nice upscale restaurant, the colors and decor here clearly suggested a restaurant past its heyday. The tackiness and unattractiveness of the diners' atire also made us feel that these people were not to be empathized with but more to be laughed at. It struck me that the play could have been much more affecting if the restaurant resembled one of the finer restaurants down the street from ACT, and if the diners looked liked the well dressed and well educated audience that was watching the show. If so, I believe the laughter that would have been created during the show would have been much more nervous laughter than the almost hooting and hollering I heard.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dirty Story at Intiman Theater - Theater Review

Shawn Law, Allen Fitzpatrick and Carol Roscoe
Question : Have you ever seen a woman in the front row of a theater, bend forward to put her face between her knees and cover her ears with her hands so she won't see or hear anything that is coming in the following potentially disturbing sequence of events on stage? Have you then seen that same woman, after intermission, laughing uproariously with the rest of the audience at the hilariously ridiculous antics that the play and its players are presenting? If you have, then you were fortunate enough to be at the Intiman Theatre's studio space this past Friday night, enjoying the vastly entertaining production of John Patrick Shanley's 2003 play Dirty Story with me.

While certainly extreme, this woman's physicalized reactions are the perfect way to frame the experience of witnessing this play. Brutus (Shawn Law) and Wanda (Carol Roscoe), who we meet, and who meet each other in Act 1, start their relationship with barbed tension and allow it to develop into frightening physical and psychological abuse. But shortly before intermission, broad and most welcomed comedy bursts through the door and announces that nothing we have seen so far is quite what we thought. When we return to Act 2, our expectations have been thrown out the window and we are taken on a wild ride that includes an overweight cowboy as Uncle Sam, a British bartender who seems to have walked in from a a Beckett play, ballroom dancing, a hilarious duet of "You Light Up My Life," slow motion stage combat and some of the best comic timing I've seen on stage in  a while, all in the name of global politics.

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton
If it all this sounds a bit like a mess of a play, well it kind of is. John Patrick Shanley is really pushing his metaphors and symbolism here and not all of it comes together. But under Valerie Curtis-Newton's tight meticulous direction, the evening moves at the perfect pace. The conviction and commitment of the cast to the material, in both its silliness and its import, keeps us fully invested throughout. The design team, with a smart, clean and imaginative set by Jennifer Zeyl and transformative lighting and sound by LB Morse and Matt Starritt respectively, really help focus the, at times, three ring circus of a script.

Quinn Franzen and Allen Fitzpatrick

The charming Quinn Franzen as Frank and the outstanding Allen Fitzpatrick as Watson, have such great comic timing together, that I'd love to see them cast together again in a similar Vladimir and Estragon type of relationship in the future. Carol Roscoe is pitch perfect as Wanda/Nipples/Israel, carefully navigating her character's evolution from wide-eyed and hopeful apprentice to militaristic and pious warlord. Only Shawn Law's portrayal of Brutus fell flat for me. He seemed possessed by a manic anger that didn't seem called for by the script and never found a grounded focus on stage.

With classics like Hedda Gabler and Romeo and Juliet and such a great name like Dan Savage associated with Miracle!, it would be easy for Dirty Story to be the least noticed production at the Intiman Theatre Festival. I hope that is not the case. This is a fun and wonderfully executed production that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Dirty Story plays as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival through August 25th tickets here

The Actor's Choice vs The Director's Choice -The Reviewer's Dilemna

The situation : You have just seen two plays within a couple days of one another. In working on your reviews for these plays you find that there are central performances in both plays that you felt were off. However, in describing the performances you realize that in one case you commend the actor and blame the director for the choices made. In the second case you notice that you are putting all the fault on the actor's choices. What makes the difference? Is it fair for the reviewer to assign blame to one rather than another?

For me, in thinking about these two performances, the first Marya Sea Kaminski as Hedda Gabler in Hedda Gabler, the second Shawn Law as Brutus in Dirty Story, the distinction became more clear to me. Kaminski was fully executing clear bold choices in a production  that was full of such bold choices. The miss in that production for me came down to the overall vision of Andrew Russell's direction - what I didn't like about Kaminski's take on Hedda paralleled all the other problems I had with the show.

Yet in Dirty Story Shawn Law's portrayal of Brutus, seemed quite a bit off in a production that was otherwise extremely tight. He played Brutus with a manic anger that wasn't called for in the script, a manic anger that came off to me more like an actor trying to keep himself at what he believes the level of his character's energy need to be rather than what the director necessarily asked for. So, unlike my assessment of Hedda Gabler, I found director Valerie Curtis Netwon's take on the John Patrick Shanley script to be uniformly consistent throughout and no external devises (like Hedda's odd dance-like hand movements in the other production) imposed on the actor playing Brutus by the director. Law was performing within the boundaries of Curtis Newton's direction but making small choices with his energy on how to portray the character's frustration (again, mostly coming off as manic anger) that corrupted that performance for me.

Is this completely subjective? Of course. I assume many could see these same two performances and come out with completely different, if not entirely opposite takes.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hedda Gabler at The Intiman Theatre - Theater Review

It is hard to be critical of a play that has so much going for it. When you see so much strong artistic talent on display (a sleek well balanced and visually arresting modernist set; energetic, committed and assured performances from a number of excellent actors; bold choices with established plot points and line deliveries that jar and reawaken even the most tenured Ibsen aficionado) you are expecting and even rooting for a solid, if not, excellent production of a play.

Timothy McCuen Piggee and Marya Sea Kaminski
Unfortunately, despite all elements mentioned above( none of which are thrown out lightly - these are clearly extremely talented artists at work) this production of Hedda Gabler leaves its audience confused, frustrated and, dare I say, at times, even bored, as Hedda herself is so desperately trying not to be.

Ultimately, the problem here is context. On its most simple level, Hedda Gabler works when the societal constraints set upon Hedda, are most clear. She is from a very established family, she is used to the finest things, she expects greatness in her life, but all the world around her expects for her to be simply a mother and a good wife. She is not cut out for this world. Neither is Nora from Ibsen's A Doll's House. Its been said that Hedda is the Nora who does not slam the door at the end of her play. Nora slams the door and walks onto some kind of new life. Hedda doesn't see that as an option. She feels trapped at the beginning and the cage closes in on her as the play progresses.

In this production, Marya Sea Kaminski (giving a fully invested skillful and attention grabbing performance) in the role of Hedda, plays her, from the start, as the standard definition of a psychopath. She has no empathy, is impulsive, is manipulative (beyond the script's requirements), lacks guilt, and has superficial charm. This portrayal is heightened by the director (Andrew Russell) and choreographer (Olivier Wevers) need to have her perform odd jittering hand gestures that are accompanied by classic "psycho" type music when other characters aren't watching : is she reaching for those guns locked in the box at the other end off the room; is she trying to stop herself from lashing out violently at her husband or their friends and neighbors? It doesn't matter, because the moments are too isolated and fleeting to be integrated into what, in may other ways, is a very straight forward performance.

Ryan Fields and Marya Sea Kaminski

Therefore, we don't get any vision as Hedda as the romantic that she is. She wants greatness and beauty in life and, if not, greatness and beauty in death. Hedda must at some point in the play attempt to try to live with her circumstances, even if just for a moment. She needs to try to find something that will allow her to avoid her eventual suicide. Otherwise she would do it much earlier. The fact that she doesn't have the will and full reasoning to kill herself earlier in the play (much like Hamlet doesn't at the beginning of his play) is part of what gives the play dramatic tension (Ibsen is called the father of the well-made-play for a reason). Director Russell's choice to have Kaminski play Hedda so cold, so flippant and so unaffected, and have so many lines dripping in contemporary irony that the original play couldn't have suggested, distances the audience from her story and diffuses the drama that Ibsen wrote.

Yet Russell's choices with Kaminski could have potentially worked a bit better, had other elements of the production come together. The set, which upon viewing before curtain, was impressive, unexpected and masterfully executed. The depth and height of the space, the coolness of color, the lack of traditional domestic living room drama decor, was exciting and expectation setting. However, once the play began, the ensemble used only the front most 1/3 of the stage for 90% of the play and all action happening behind the gauze put up to divide the stage as well as the action taking place on the elevated platform above and behind the action, could have been eliminated altogether and would have given the audience the same, if not clearer understanding of the play ( I would go as far to say that you could take the same performance put it in a 20' x 20' black box space, loose all the choreography and backstage action, and the play would have even a stronger impact).

Don't get me wrong. Some of the visual tableau's were stunning in their composition. They just had nothing to do with the play we were watching. The best and most obvious example of this kind of misfire, is the final moments of the play where traditionally Hedda, having found herself trapped into a new a hidden, and to her, unacceptable, kind of slavery with Judge Brack, goes to another room and takes one of her pistols and shoots herself. Here Russell and Wevers have Kaminski actually onstage perform a dance moment that is clearly and extension of all those weird distracting gestures from earlier in the play. She battles with herself as she throws herself between the onstage characters who do not notice her distress. Then, in a final moment, she drops, a shot is heard and she reaches out to the audience (nothing even miming her handling a gun has occurred). This unexpected piece of avant-garde interpretation is so out of place and seemingly random in this production that upon leaving the theater I heard someone say "Oh, she shot herself, I didn't get that."

Again. I have no objection to the artistry of the movement sequence itself. Actually, taken on its own, it may have been the most complex and engaging moment of the evening. Yet it had no context withing the rest of the production. The audience applause at the end of the evening was a bit timid in my estimation (remember this is Seattle where it doesn't take much to get a standing ovation). The enthusiasm that was present but scattered in the applause seemed to be for the effort of the actors (again Kaminiski was solidly committed in what she was asked to do and I would get tickets to anything she, the outstanding Timothy McCuen Piggee (Judge Brack) or Ryan Fields (Jorgen Tesman) would be cast in next) but hesitant in its confusion as to what it had just seen.

I am so glad to see Intiman taking bold steps in its reincarnation this year. It is a theater that has brought some great moments to Seattle stages. The artists in this production are clearly worthy to be part of its legacy. I eagerly look forward to seeing more plays in the Festival.

Hedda Gabler plays as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival through August 25 tickets here


I haven't seen Romeo and Juliet in this festival yet, but I have to assume that the set I saw in Hedda Gabler was designed more for the Shakespeare production than it was for the Ibsen. I was almost distracted during Hedda, picturing so clearly how those classic scenes from that tragic love story would be staged on this set. It almost seemed as though some of the staging that I found irrelevant (the off stage actors seated above, rising to their feet when their names are mentioned, as if we wouldn't be able to keep track otherwise, etc) was an afterthought - we have all this space from the Shakespeare production, we might as well use it. Clearly one of the trappings of doing a multi-play festival, but I believe this play could have been given a bit more its own world on stage.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Red at Seattle Repertory Theater - A Theater Review

When Seattle Rep announced its 2011-2012 season, I assumed that Red by John Logan would be one of the pieces that I would skip this year. I hadn't read the play yet, but descriptions of it, a play about a famous artist, Mark Rothko, a two character play, taking place in Rothko's studio between the aging artist and his young apprentice, seemed to be one of those plays about "art" that is not only easily described to the potential audience but just as easily digestible to that audience. Everyone gets to feel that they have a glimpse into the creative process of a great artist, no one is really all that challenged, and everyone goes home feeling more cultured than before.

Additionally, in the New York production, the Rothko role was played by the great, but scenery chewing, Alfred Molina. The idea of watching Molina embody the unchecked ego of a great artist and rage and howl for 90 minutes, seemed like a safe, predictable and self-indulgent experience for both actor and audience. Its interesting how the premiere casting of a play can work on our perception and interpretation of it.

Denis Arndt as Mark Rothko
Fortunately for Seattle audiences, the Rep and director Richard E. T. White either ignored or purposely reacted against the Molina archetype in their casting of Mark Rothko. Indeed, it was the casting of Denis Arndt that convinced me to see the show. Arndt is one of the most fluid and effortless actors to watch on stage. His attention to the subtle details of his characters and his non-negotiable embodiment of them have delivered, over the years, some of the best performances I have seen on Seattle stages. His introspective, sometimes even delicate Rothko seductively lured the audience in from his first moments of silence on stage, bringing all the more drama and tension to scenes where his hard shell engulfed the character like a fist of pride, defensiveness, and self-loathing. Arndt is magnificent to watch and is a reason in itself to see this show.

A minimalistically elaborate set
Yet, this production is generous enough to offer more justifications that just this to recommend it. The design team here has done an outstanding job. Rothko's studio is both monumentally grounded and minimalistically elaborate. It is so texturally diverse you want to jump up there and touch it, yet also simple and utilitarian enough that its allows the focus to always shift as need between the actors and the art. The lighting (light is a huge topic and theme of the play) is so subtly effective that I am sure most audience members wouldn't even think of it as the artistry that it is.

Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern
The paintings themselves are a bit more hit or miss (what a huge challenge - to create credible equivalents of masterworks of abstract expressionism). The first couple we see in the studio tend to look a bit too much like the work of a stage painter. Yet they do progress as the play does and the final two horizontal pieces stand out and beg the audience to take them in and absorb the pulsing movement that Rothko has been describing the whole evening.

Connor Toms as Ken
While Rothko seems like the bigger casting decision, so much relies on the effectiveness of Ken, the young apprentice whose questions, comments and reactions are the catalyst that keeps the play moving. Connor Toms brings all the energetic, youthful and wide eyed naivete that you need from this part and makes for a perfect counterbalance to the often curmudgeonly Rothko. I wish, however, we saw him grow up a bit more. When  Rothko finally kicks him out at the end, I think we should also see a young man, and an artist, who has matured and possibly outgrown his role as apprentice. Toms plays him as still a bit green at this point, but it is a minor nuance in an otherwise solid performance.

Director White and his team here have created a richly layered experience here, one that allows the audience to slow down, reflect and gaze at the performance as much as follow its action. The contrast of light and dark, the pulsing and movement that Rothko talks about are all present here washing over the audience again and again, scene after scene like cascading waves on a beach that, when the stillness of the final scene arrives, delivers a unexpected surprise as to how far we have journeyed from the shore.

Red plays at Seattle Repertory Theater runs through March 24

There is a Mark Rothko exhibit currently at the Portland Art Museum on display through May 27.


I had some trouble with the play itself. The best things that can be said for it, is that it is light handed enough to allow artists like these to create such a fine evening of theater from it. The role of Ken is such a device to get Rothko talking that we almost loose his humanity (again hats off to Connor Toms), which is probably why we get the obligatory sad and tragic personal story about Tom's family that does little for the play except give the actor a nice juicy moment and introduce Ken's absence of a father figure.

That said there was one moment in the play that didn't quite live up to its potential in this production (spoiler coming, so please skip this paragraph if you don't want anything given away). In the final scene of the play it calls for Rothko to be "slumped awkwardly on the floor, gazing up at the central picture." When Ken enters and turns on some lights, Ken "stops - it is a shocking sight. Rothko's hands and arms are dripping with red. It is paint, but it looks just like blood." Ken thinks Rothko, who has alluded to suicide before, has slit his wrists. He freaks out for a moment and then realizes it is paint. In this production, Arndt is not slumped awkwardly, as one might be if they were loosing blood, or in this case had a had a few drinks. Nor is the paint that is used blood red but more clay colored and does not look for even a split second to the audience like Rothko has slit his wrists. Actually, the audience is confused at why Ken is freaking out. Its clearly paint, the same paint that has been used throughout the entire evening.  The real Rothko did end up committing suicide by slitting his wrists and clearly the playwright included this as a bit of foreshadowing. What a difference is they had delivered to the audience the same shock that Ken feels.

This is a surprising miss, but ultimately a very minor criticism in what is a wonderfully successful production.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thinking About Spalding Gray - A New Book and Film

I was extremely heartened to see that Stephen Soderbergh's documentary about Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine (I finally caught  it streaming on Netflix), included one of the final moments from his monologue, Morning Noon and Night, where Spalding, a relatively new and late-in-life father, after a long day, is at home with his family and is slowly swept up into an impromptu dance with his wife and kids to a song from Cumbawamba. It is a goofy and wonderfully uninhibited moment. I remember seeing this monologue when he performed it in Seattle over twelve years ago and this moment of freedom, joy and optimism that he captured as he took a rare step out from behind his wooden table to gyrate in front of us with a boom box in his hands was a much needed tonic for a long time fan like myself.

Gray's previous monologue (which I saw a few years before in Seattle), It's a Slippery Slope, discussed some extremely personal issues (affairs, infidelities, etc) and was one of his darkest pieces to date as it displayed a worn out, depressed Spalding Gray who seemed to be having a hard time finding even a hint of silver lining in any aspect of his life. As Gray's work progressed through the years the time frame between the events he discussed and the monologues he preformed grew shorter and shorter. Its possible that he didn't have the distance on this darker personal material yet, but went ahead and put it into a show anyway, as that is what he had trained himself to do. Whatever the reason for this unrepentant and humorless public baring of his soul, it was he first time that many of us looked back on his earlier topics of self-doubt, sexual experimentation, self-loathing and suicide and thought twice about the Spalding Gray we thought we knew.

What that joyous moment and the end of Morning, Noon and Night seemed to confirm was that he had come back, He had gone to a dark place but had returned. After all, that was the great appeal of his performances. He would discuss the most humiliating, awful, silly, horrific and mundane aspects of his thoughts and experiences and show an ability to have gained perspective on them; to have learned a bit from them; to be able to laugh at himself; to be able to wish optimistically to be a better person tomorrow. We lost that in It's a Slippery Slope and got it back like a warm hug in Morning Noon and Night

After his death in 2004, we saw that the glimpse of the darker and less filtered side of his psyche we witnessed in It's a Slippery Slope was a lot closer to the private Spalding Gray than many of us wanted to imagine. The release of The Journals of Spalding Gray and the Soderbergh documentary only confirm this fact.

These two important compositions of archival material are as rich and satisfying as they are incomplete and frustrating. Both aim to and succeed in giving us a piece of the man we were all denied when he was alive. That we might not have wanted to get to know that piece that much better is an inevitable regret.

Editor Nell Casey's work on The Journals is accomplished and thorough. She digs deep and provides wonderful context to these random entries from Gray's personal writings. The anecdotes she provides between the journal entries act as the beginnings of a biography of Gray, one that I hope she or another equally fine writer continues someday. Yet the journals themselves show a less confident Spalding Gray; a man who is at war with his place in the world. They give us access to extremely intimate aspects of his thoughts and life that are as uncomfortable to read about as they clearly were written as a personal self-therapy session, not as a vehicle to share himself with a wider public.

The film And Everything is Going Fine has no voice over or any other context providing device. It is composed entirely of footage  (all archival - none from his major films) of Gray's monologues and interviews the performer gave over the years. The focus here , however, is really less on the evolution and career of an artist but an attempt at a biography of the personal man. All the clips really focus on the timeline of Gray's life. The result is at once a welcome additional piece to the complex jigsaw puzzle portrait of Spalding Gray we have been trying to complete ever since his death, yet also an almost claustrophobic portrayal, in its refusal to step outside of the man and show the impact of his work on others.

What I missed most from both of these works was the joy and inspiration that Spalding Gray's art brought to my life. Great live theater is a transcending and cathartic experience. Spalding Gray understood that and in the majority of his pieces wrestled his most personal excursions and philosophies into artwork that made his audience laugh, cheer, 
squirm, gasp,sit and think. 

I suppose its inevitable that I wanted so much more from these two pieces. Loss does that to you. I miss Spalding Gray and I continue to wish that there was some way that the moment of carefree dancing to the ridiculous Chumbawamba could have sustained him and kept him with us for further tales. I assume this is merely the first wave in what will be a healthy ongoing retrospective of the man and his career. I hope that someone can create a piece that honors all that he gave us and not just the sadness he left behind.