Monthly Archives: January 2011

On The Metamorphosis from Ghost Light Theatricals

Ghost Light Theatricals and Wilder Nutting-Heath sure picked a tough one. Franz Kafka’s famous novella “The Metamorphosis” details the downfall of already downtrodden salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning and finds himself transformed into a man-sized insect. He is a man surrounded by the disgust of others, even to a great degree from his own family, even before he awakes to find himself an insect. Strife and hate results before Gregor eventually dies for the benefit of his family. Heartwarming tale: Read more about the basics here.

Wilder Nutting-Heath teamed up with local shadow puppeteer Nick Hubbard to build an abstract stage production outlining Gregor’s story. Brian Eagen’s set features cloth-thin walls, allowing them to double as screens with which Hubbard’s musically accompanied back-lit puppetry can play out through a team of four puppeteers between actor-driven scenes.

The acting is functional. The script, in honoring the fractured and formatically difficult story, does all it can with a story that’s more Beckettian in its abstraction than anything. Wilder’s script even adds in a spiritual seer-like well dressed man (Daniel Reaume) who slips into and out of the room to consult with Gregor as his world breaks down. Adam Davis as Gregor sinks capably into Gregor’s saddest and darkest moments with full commitment, and even does some daring climbing along one of the Ballard Underground beams and takes a dangerous but choreographed fall onto his mattress. Travis Roderick’s silly depiction of a solicited resident and later snooty replacement tenant provided uncanny comic relief.

But the big reason to see this show is the interscene shadow puppetry, whose combination of light and angling of the sharply oblong 2-D character and scenery puppets to create the looming and fading undulative images we see on the makeshift wall screens, looks mesmerizing. Giant heads, small figures, winding forests, the lingering bug and other pieces weave in and out of the light and screen in little vignettes. Though the actual story is played out by the actors once the lights come up, Hubbard’s puppetry and team of puppeteers intuitively feed us the sense of theme and the direction of the story, while also giving color and a sense of time/place to an otherwise morose drama that, save for a witty opening scene depicting Gregor’s sales failures, never leaves Gregor’s room.

This is weird material, and Wilder Nutting-Heath did all he could to craft a workable script from it. But even though it tells a follow-able story, it does feel like it leaves you hanging… even though that’s more Kafka’s fault for writing a story that doesn’t produce a dramatically satisfying ending. Wilder maximized what he had, and of course Nick Hubbard did a ton with his shadow-puppetry to show us the fractured and overpowering psychological world inside Gregor’s mind. And to say the acting was functional is not in any way to discredit the actors, as the material itself is fairly abstract and even to some extent dry. They mostly did what they could… and Daniel Reaume in particular took hold of the well dressed man’s quasi-fatherly and mentorial role, a fine job of commanding our attention when he took the stage.

One interesting element was the 60-70 minute 1st act, followed by a very short 2nd act that lasted maybe 20-25 minutes, if that, before curtain. The division seemed natural for where in the story the 1st act ended, but it did feel weird to come back and see two short scenes before everyone awkwardly tiptoed out to take their bows.

Should you see it? Fans of Ghost Light’s style of reworking classical material always show up in spades, and in fact the Saturday show I saw sold out the 100 seat Ballard Underground. This show is as always right up your alley if GLT’s work is your thing. You’ll like it. Casual viewers… may not quite get into the story if they don’t know the story, but the use of shadow puppetry in this play is worth a look, and in fact the usage of shadow puppetry in theatre in general is a subject worth expanding upon.

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On The K of D at Seattle Rep

It’s the Renata Friedman Show!

Backstory: Back at an ACT reading in 2005, Renata Friedman fell hard for Laura Schellhardt’s play The K of D: an urban legend, about a small Ohio town where a girl allegedly had the power to kill anything with a kiss. Renata tag teamed with director Braden Abraham and a few other designers to produce the play on her own as a solo show in the Balagan space in 2008, to rave reviews before taking it on the road and even making the finals of the New York Fringe Festival, surpassing over two hundred other productions. Seattle Rep AD Jerry Manning saw opportunity and decided to produce the show this month with Renata, Braden and the other designers in the Leo K Theatre. Having heard good things about the 2008 original run, I put aside my reservations about solo shows and looked forward to seeing this production.

Since I’m not in the mood to rewrite 1000 words, I’ll be relatively brief and call this a benchmark show. This is what a good solo show looks like: It tells a distinct story with a reasonably satisfying conclusion, and the performer disappears seamlessly into over a dozen different characters, giving each one as distinct a personality as possible. The worst I can possibly say about the performance is that many of the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, but that could just as easily be a product of the writing, and still it’s an immense accomplishment for a performer to bring all of them to life as unique individuals and weave seamlessly between them in active scenes.

If all solo shows had all these elements and featured performers this dynamic, I’d love the genre and its corresponding artistic rise in current society instead of doubting it. This show is indeed Renata Friedman’s defining performance and this is one time where the requisite Seattle Rep Standing Ovation was well-deserved. Many solo shows struggle to get past an hour and 10 minutes, and yet Renata had enough gas in the tank to power through 85 minutes and appear to have enough in her to do 90 more.

Would I have paid $50 to see it? I wouldn’t have. If you pay $50 to see theatre all the time, go ahead and pay $50 to see Renata Friedman play 17 characters colorfully well. If you can get cheap tickets (Goldstar?) or comped in, definitely go see it. Go see what a good solo show looks like.

On No Snowflake In An Avalanche by Emerald City Scene

You can tell the moment you walk into Seattle Center’s Theatre4 at Center House that Emerald City Scene’s head honcho Nathaniel Porter is thinking bigger with his new play No Snowflake In An Avalanche than most upstart theatre producers. Porter ambitiously detached the Theatre4 risers from the wall, something few productions do in this space, allowing him to deploy more chairs than the usual wall-side setup. Even with the rail-side back row empty and none of the floor space utilized, Porter was able to deploy about 40 chairs, whereas most can’t or won’t deploy more than 30.

And to Porter’s credit, most of those seats were full for the special Thursday night run, one of Theatre4’s better crowds. The production’s seen similarly solid crowds throughout the first two weeks of their three week run, and after two hours this show for the most part did not let any of those patrons down.

The play hovers around the mystery of maldeveloped Michael Thompson (Fox Matthews), who became a rambling quasi-autistic nutcase after a 2001 incident at a Disneyland hotel and never recovered, and around his older brother Jonathan (Alec Wilson), who struggles with a conflicted relationship with his troubled parents (Russ Kay and Pearl Klein) during the rare times he sees them. 9/11/01 is involved. The play jumps around in time, concluding incidentally during the pivotal moment that drives Michael to insanity. I’ll leave it all a mystery to maximize your enjoyment of the play should you go. Porter’s story does a fine job of crafting a mystery you want to learn the answer to, and the jumps forward and backward in time are well placed relative to the story, atypical of the oft-ill-advised time travel plot device.

As a growing playwright as well as a growing director, Porter’s story and show does have some struggles. Much of the dialogue tends to lack the natural rhythm and direction of human conversation, and this puts the actors in some tough positions, trying to justify dialogue that possibly is a bit far fetched for their respective moments. It’s nothing huge and doesn’t by any means ruin the play. But conflicts rise and fall with such speed that otherwise normal characters would seem a bit manic or nuts if they managed to play the moments to their fullest potential.

Therein lies the other shortcoming, and it may be in part a byproduct of the many sudden swings in the moment-to-moment dialogue. Russ Kay and Pearl Klein are actors with a rich but lower key energy, and often they’re required to blow up on another character. Often Kay and Klein can’t find the needed energy to really hammer those moments home. Many of their angry, passionate verbal or physical outbursts seem a bit artificial and held back. But at the same time an uncanny lot of these moments pop up throughout each scene, rather than a more natural, gradual boiling towards a handful of key moments. Kay or Klein aren’t ancient or anything, but their age is advanced enough that a salvo of such outbursts probably isn’t a good idea for their health. In that respect I can’t blame them for holding back.

Both Kay and Klein, even with several early moments that made it tough for me to buy into them, still gave their characters textured personalities that helped sell their bigger moments later in the play, even if a few of those fell flat. A relevant aside: There was one big moment where they used a contact slap but obviously you don’t want to slap someone straight up if you’re not stage combat trained. So the slap was so pulled it came off flat. A non-contact knap-slap might have worked better there.

So now that I’ve spent 2.5 paragraphs on the drawbacks, I should harp on more of the many good things this play does. Fox Matthews has a tough job in playing a trigger-damaged grown kid whose energy never comes down, and Fox never lets off the gas when he’s on stage. For this play to work we’ve got to see the damage in the still-somehow-human Michael and Fox absolutely delivered.

Alec Wilson, fresh off the proverbial train from Portland, gives the most natural and human performance of the cast as Jonathan, absolutely down to Earth and invested in his character’s every moment. There isn’t a moment with Alec where I didn’t think I was watching Jonathan Thompson’s life played out on stage. Alec is a bonafide acting talent and I hope to see much more of him around Seattle theatre down the road.

Molly Thompson had a fairly overt French accent but gave us a very human and engaged Bella Grimm, showing us every moment of Bella’s hurt and compassion as she wrestles with trying to connect with boyfriend Jonathan’s family.

The play itself flowed well and didn’t linger longer than it needed to. The show, with intermission, clocked in at just under two hours. The simple light design gave the stage a warm glow and Danielle Franich’s set design was minimal but perfectly effective in setting the scene with as little as 3-4 set pieces, a wooden doorway and a few necessary props.

At $15, it’s on the high end of acceptable for full-length fringe theatre, and I won’t call it spectacular or a hot ticket. But Snowflake won’t disappoint anyone who chooses to see it. It gives you all it’s got, and sometimes it starkly reminds you the show isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid example of good local theatre, the sort of local theatre you want to cultivate and give a continued audience.

On Jose Bold’s fly by night production of Spidermann

There’s not much shelf life to a review of Spidermann, Jose Bold’s fly-by-night lampoon of the disastrous $65 million Spider Man Broadway musical that’s languished in mediocre overpriced previews while stars keep getting injured and set pieces keep falling to… uh… pieces.

Spidermann only has a quick three-show run at the Satori Loft, the last of which is this Saturday, and that’s it. Such a quick run and disappearance is part of the idea behind John Osebold’s latest creative child, to create and quickly extinguish something far better than something far more expensive. So I won’t go into a ton of detail, but I can’t help but mention a show I had a lot of fun watching with dozens of other theatregoers.

With about 1/1,000,000 of the Broadway musical’s budget, John Osebold assembled a small, talented cast and threw together a 50-55 minute comic parody of both the Spider Man story and the failed Broadway musical, the adult theatre equivalent of kids throwing toys together and creating a play-pretend world with action figures.

Ray Tagavilla’s deadpan comic timing as “Peter Parkre” and the clever writing was funny enough, but a couple parts, Radioactive Steve Winwood and the aptly dubbed Mary Jane Taymor, had a rotating cast for different nights. And Friday night’s show drew the smooth musical and comedic talents of Mark Siano, who had us in stitches with as little as a look, a turn, or one well timed word… along with a passionate medley of Steve Winwood’s greatest hits. Ivory Smith was this night’s Mary Jane Taymor, and her funniest moments came in large part from her awkwardness in moments where her scripted actions and character aloofness were far out of place for the moment, and from the reactions her strangeness drew from Tagavilla’s Parkre.

While not as campy as some of the $65 million show’s recent additions, it’s got a lot of funny stuff going for it and is definitely worth a night of your time.