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.