On ReAct’s Kindred Spirits

Crossposted from my original blog entry.

Kindred Spirits is the current ReAct production at Hugo House in Seattle’s Capitol Hill and is running every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through August 8. This is a premiere run of the play by Maggie Lee, who cut her teeth mainly with the Pork Filled Players but has put a finger in the pot with a few other local troupes. She’s written some other stuff, like an adaption of HP Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep and a scene in the currently running Greetings From Styx, but this is her first original full length stage play to go live and it came about from her work with the SIS Writers group.

The Seattle Performs calendar simply describes the play as a “whimsically charming romantic ghost story about the power of memory and love.” That sums it up about right. Unlike Shakespeare, whose work is common knowledge and thus describing the plot doesn’t spoil much of anything… I don’t want to spoil much from this clever play that has a few surprises as it wears on. So I’m going to be vague about the plot. You’ll like it if you see it.

I was willing to cut Lee’s script a lot of slack given it was her first full-length play, and given there’s some sentimentality behind it not just with the feelings Lee put into writing it, but from director David Hsieh, who was motivated to produce it in part by the untimely death of friend and long-time ReAct colleague TJ Langley in a mountain climbing accident. The death happened shortly before the initial public reading of the play and the combination motivated Hsieh to eventually produce the play.

But there’s no need to cut the play slack: Lee wrote a clever, smart, well-paced script that hits a lot of sentimental notes without getting overwrought with its key moments. There’s a lot of jokes in the script as well, though the timing for whatever reason wasn’t quite right (it didn’t help that the crowd wasn’t much of a laughing crowd; more on this later). Not sure if the cast just didn’t have the comedic timing or if the script needed some additional polish. But there wasn’t much wrong with the script itself.

The only possible thing I can think to bag on is some wonky syntax that doesn’t fit conversationally, with odd words like “scamper” and “startled” showing up in individual lines. If the script needs any sort of revision, Lee may want to go line by line and ask, “Would a person say this in conversation, as written?” Swap out such disused words for more regularly used synonyms and this script would otherwise flow perfectly. There’s not a lot of lines that would need to get fixed, but cleaning up the few that do would improve the play further. It’s still a good script as written, maintaining an active pace despite taking place in a single setting and being dominated by conversations between six characters.

Don’t think I’m criticizing the cast. Actually, all five of the live actors (a 6th voiced over character was pre-recorded with the booming voice of Gordon Hendrickson) did a terrific job with their roles. I can’t point to a single one and call them a weak link, and unilaterally strong performances are what you need in a show with a small cast. Everyone’s got to deliver, and this cast did. Looking back, I didn’t take a single note that was critical of anyone’s acting.

I’ve seen enough David Hsieh-directed shows to attest that David’s casting and directorial strength lies in getting fresh, down to Earth performances out of all his actors. With his shows you easily lose sight of the fact you’re watching actors play out a scene. The acting so finely resembles real conversations, actions and personalities that everything comes together to become a scene, rather than everyone performing a scene.

Combine Hsieh’s touch with ReAct’s active mission to involve Asian Americans (as well as other underrepresented cultures) in every aspect of their work, in a theatre world that even now seems 99% white with minorities still relegated to token and contextual roles, and you can see how David Hsieh’s become one of Seattle’s top theatre people over the years despite a constant dearth of resources with the always-struggling yet consistently active ReAct group.

Kindred Spirits is no exception, as David went 6 for 6 on his casting decisions. I’ll preface the following by saying that it seems like I’m kissing ass, but this entire group did a fine job.

A candid and connective performance from May Nguyen as mysteriously subletting summer housekeeper Henrietta leads the production, and though she landed the bulk of the script’s wonky syntax she had minimal trouble hurdling the obstacles in those lines.

Joel Putnam as her roommate Max seemed totally like a friend of yours hanging out over some drinks, with a practically flawless laid-back and comfortable performance, like a regular dude hanging out at the house, yet was well connected during the more dramatic moments. This guy just returned from two years off?

Walayn Sharples could well be your grandmother in the role of the house matriarch Camille. There wasn’t much performance in her… uh… performance. She was Camille, not playing Camille. Ashton Hyman’s dorky but troubled Hilshire and Hana Lass’ pragmatic and blunt Lane provided colorful foils as the action unfolded.

Seattle Scenic Studios’ set is your standard modern theatre house set, very complete and colorful for its relative simplicity. Only the set edges and the black stage floor give away that you’re not looking at a living room. The set also has some minimal but fabulous special effects that work in tandem with some sharply timed and colorful lighting effects by Evan Merryman Ritter.

Now, unlike the free plays I previously reviewed, this one requires an investment. Students and seniors as always get a discount but you’re paying $12 a head if you order online and $15 at the door. That’s on the high end of my range, and pretty high for a “Hey friend go check out this play I liked” recommendation.

But never mind that I liked the show and think you might too. These guys deserve a better audience than they got at today’s 2 pm performance. I was one of NINE (9) people in the audience today, and as I mentioned, it wasn’t a guffawing night crowd. It’s already hard enough to feed off a typically quiet daytime audience without the audience being this small. That’s a shame, especially for a group like ReAct that’s not drowning in the endowments, outlet promotion and big ticket sponsorships that other groups take for granted… whose budget for a show often comes down to, “Uh… how much money do the Hsiehs have saved up?” This is a group that can use all the support it can get, and it’s not like they’re putting on a weak or garbage run of a show. This is a good play, the sort of play that can leave 100 people walking out at the end saying, “Wow that was a good play!” They could use a wider audience and I willingly encourage theatregoers to round up friends, family, colleagues and whoever else might care, and give them one.

Now, I’ve given some glowing reviews recently but admit I’ve seen a spate of good shows. I can admit that there’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and a lot of troupes (that I will for now keep nameless) often put out bland and uninteresting shows, and/or rehashes of old non-Shakespeare plays done dozens of times over, and then charge as much or even more than ReAct’s charging for this show. I know $12-15 is a bit much to spend on a theatre production if you’re only a casual fan at best, and no one wants to walk out of a $12-15 show after 90-120 minutes feeling like they just wasted their money and time. Hell, I consider $12-15 and two hours of my free time a pretty significant investment and I LIKE theatre.

But those of you who would otherwise spend $10 on a mainstream movie or $15 on an overdone IMAX/3D film and have any sort of interest in theatre… let alone those of you who like theatre and try to see a production every week or three… may want to go to Hugo House in Capitol Hill and give Kindred Spirits a shot. ReAct’s among the minority of local troupes that always produces shows from challenging, new scripts that gives viewers a new look at reality, whether the past, the present or the future.

Maggie Lee wrote a smart and clever script with a few twists that approaches the subject of nostalgia in a light that you may find eye-opening. And David Hsieh with a handful of actors bring it to life with a performance that won’t blow you away but will leave you walking out the door feeling better and a little smarter than you did when you came in. Kindred Spirits may not seem like much on the surface or from the listings. But I assure you that, as theatre goes, it’s a better expenditure of your time and money than many of the other options out there.

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