All posts by Catherine Blake Smith

Dramaturg, director & playwright based in Seattle, WA.
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Theatrical Impression: Gidion’s Knot at Seattle Public Theater

My neighborhood theatre with the best view - Seattle Public Theater at the bathhouse on Green Lake – is producing Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams. This play has thrown me and my perceptions for a loop this past week, and I *love* it. Regardless of what I perceived was wrong about the script or whatever, I think it’s important for Seattle audiences to see this play. Rebecca Olson (the teacher) and Heather Hawkins (simply amazing as the mother) landed a fantastic opening night and the play runs for three more weekends. But even a terrific acting performance can skew my perceptions of a script that is convoluted and confusing at times.

Strong, Immersive Staging

First off, the staging and set design were fantastic. See this play and sit right up close to get the experience. It’s worth it. I was sitting right next to the only entrance, behind the teacher’s desk. I felt like a fly on the wall, like I was actually in the 5th grade classroom and able to observe the scene between Gidion’s mother and teacher as they discussed Gidion’s fate and untimely demise.

Being immersed in the staging meant I not only had to be an accountable audience member (tuck my legs in, look attentive), but it also meant that when the mother would speak to the teacher, it was like she was speaking directly to me. I was also close to the impeccable set dressings. Ashley Banker (props designer) made exquisite posters about mythology and put other detailed touches on the set that were a fun visual game to look at.

Also, the staging was well done. I was sitting in what could have been considered a very bad seat, and it just wasn’t. Both actresses were aware of their sight lines, staying visible as they warred from separate sides of the classroom. The shape of the stage Seattle Public allows the producers play with traditional theatre in a non-traditional way. Doing a play that could very well be done in a proscenium stage in a nearly three-quarter set-up was a strong choice and served the play well. I like the contrast between the hyper-realism of being in a classroom and the hyper-awareness that we are all here, watching a play.

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St Vincent [Concert] at The Moore

Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to see St Vincent play live at The Moore in Seattle. I have been a fan of St Vincent since college, and once I realized I had the chance not only to go to a live concert in Seattle but to go see HER, I knew it had to be. (Working in theatre PLUS my work schedule precludes me from being able to attend most live concerts, meaning last year I missed out on Nada Surf and The Long Winters.) What I experienced last night was unlike any live concert I have ever seen. Everyone in my balcony was (mostly) seated. At times, I wanted to get up and dance, but I knew to do so would be to tear my eyes away, and that was the last thing I wanted.

St Vincent is a visceral, practiced explosion that demands attention, and forces the viewer and listener to experience Annie Clark on her own terms. I find this more than admirable; it’s fucking aspirational.

Precise Playlist

I’m sure St Vincent’s Digital Witness Tour is like nothing else she has ever done. (How long has she been doing choreography to her songs when performing live?) Videos of her in years past and anecdotes I have heard from friends described her as more frenetic and photos show as her a brunette waif who would surprise beyond shy smiles. Now, the St Vincent American Digital Witness Tour is a commanding, well-crafted theatrical performance piece. There is nothing onstage that is not useful, therefore there is nothing superfluous. Guitars, microphones, and theremins were never onstage until they had to be. Even when guitars didn’t need to be onstage, they were removed by a dedicated tech.

There is no set list on the stage, because everyone in the group knows what will come next. I appreciated this precision, because it speaks close to my heart. St Vincent had a script, and they followed it, perfectly memorized. Twenty songs, three poems, one introduction, and a single costume change. [OMG all I want is a picture of her performing "Strange Mercy" in that  amazing shoulder-bound crop top mini-skirt ensemble please] Even though I never knew what song would come next, I soon learned to trust Annie Clark and the band. They had chosen the best songs from her catalogue of four albums. They placed them in a perfect order, that I could never have imagined. And I can’t picture it any other way.

Expression Within Constraints

My coworker (also a fan of St Vincent and a talented career musician) pointed out that with such constraint to be performed over and over again, where is the spontaneity? Music, more than theatre, thrives on the spontaneous and human nature infused into the performance. The musicians onstage are not typically playing a character separate from themselves. However, this isn’t really true for Annie Clark/St Vincent, is it? Annie Clark is choosing to perform as St Vincent, so why shouldn’t the character be an android-like guitar-shredding goddess who forces us to watch when and how she wants? 

The spontaneity comes from the same place an actor finds spontaneity performing the same play three nights a week for five weeks in a row. There is a comfort in restraint. Performers who have a repeated pattern so well practiced can do their choreography and lyrics and guitar licks as second nature. I’m sure there was improvisation to the night during the poetry/patter, guitar solos, and certainly during the writhing onstage for “Krokodil.” The light board operator and band knew the points where would return, so they knew to wait and let her play how she would until then.

Besides the constraints of choreography – even during moments where you could expect her and her guitarist, Toko Yasuda, to improvise moments because there was nothing “set,” they were either still or precisely moved to the beat – St Vincent found times to be spontaneous. Not only during the writhing of “Krokodil” (part of the encore/costume change portion) but earlier, during “Prince Johnny,” as she slowly rolled down her platform to arrive in a reverse crucifix. Rolling down a huge box platform takes presence of mind required by performers who have marks to hit but know that every night will be slightly different. As she slowly rolled down the pink tiered platform, I was laughing. As soon as she hit her pose,  I was thinking about the bigger message she was conveying.

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JOHN GLEESON

Then black out.

Blinding Lights

Every song ended with a quick black out. There were only a couple of slow fades, but in between every song, they performers used the opportunity to shift places onstage and begin each number with mystery about the transitions. In between the black outs were flashy-as-hell lights. I felt like I was underwater, in a night club, under the assault of high beams, and everything in between. The lights were gorgeous. They reflected off of her gray hair and the white outfits of the band and the pale pink tiered platform in a gorgeous way. Despite her appearing in darkness to me up in the balcony, I could see where the foot lights were going to make some gorgeous photos. Brooklyn Benjestorf at The Stranger got some GEMS:

BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF

No Patter, Only Poetry

St Vincent did not speak until after her third song. Throughout the night, she only spoke four times: three “Poems for Seattle” (that’s what I’m calling them) and band introductions before her final final song. Every time she spoke, it was perfect. A friend of mine who was at the show is convinced the pieces were improvised, as am I, because some of them were very specific to Seattle. She began the first by saying that she felt like we were all similar to her growing up, then proceeded to describes scenes from our lives as Seattle-ites. “…And once when you were single, you went to the house from Singles, and shed a single tear… I actually did that.”

At the end, she said she was happy to have gotten to know every single one of us and it made me feel warm and fuzzy, despite not knowing this character or performer hardly at all. In my admiration for her sense of privacy and self-awareness of how to cultivate and maintain a performance character, I often find myself thinking about how well any of us truly know each other. We all choose what to express and how and when to express it. Each and every one us controls how and when people see us. St Vincent reminds us to embrace and harness  this power.

Result: Eviscerated

St Vincent, despite being a “girl in rock music,” will shred your fucking face off. This one of the reasons she is amazing, along with the exquisite beauty, indelible mystery, impenetrable lyrics, wicked rhythms, sweet melodies, etc. But sometimes I think it is the face-shredding that is the most important. St Vincent’s American Digital Witness Tour is a visceral experience, like an opera.

As the night progressed – culminating in the most EPIC performance of “Your Lips Are Red” from her 2007 album and she didn’t even do the whole song – she got more wild, expressing herself within the constraints more and more. Her movements, still choreographed, became more and more wild. Then black out. And the guitar parts became unreal. She bent over, jerked her legs, shuffled around the stage, and continued to perform as precisely as when she first began but there was something new, something unleashed. It was like she stuck a knife in my gut, exposing the deepest underbelly of my emotions…

BROOKLYN BENJESTORF
BROOKLYN BENJESTORF

…while never exposing any part of herself. She is a true surgeon, and I love her.

St Vincent at The Moore in Seattle, March 26, 2014.

Theatrical Impression: 7 Minutes in Heaven Improv Show

After seeing Raymond Williams’s 7 Minutes in Heaven improv show last Friday night I felt elated, excited, and eager. I traditionally feel this way after good improv shows. I get hyped up when I have the chance to see actors fully immerse themselves into characters. The advantage of the long-form 7 Minutes is that these actors only discover the nuances of their characters through discussion with others. The element of surprise is ever-present, and that makes it just plain fun.

7 Minutes in Heaven at Seattle Creative Arts Center
7 Minutes in Heaven at Seattle Creative Arts Center

7 Minutes is improvised speed-dating. Williams has produced it in a variety of environments with a bunch of different actors, so my first time was their first time in that space (Seattle Creative Arts Center), with that group. Williams also doesn’t know who the characters will be before they arrive, but trusts the actors to bring in someone they’ve been cultivating. There is some structure to the evening overall, but because no one knows who anyone else is, there is plenty of opportunity for surprise.

Set up like regular speed dating, the characters enter the space ready to mingle with each other and the audience. Then they take their seats. Not every character has the chance to meet, because then the show would be about two hours long (or more). Instead, one set of characters stay seated as the other half rotate to the different tables. They each have seven minutes to chat and rate each other. The audience can choose which dates to watch and for how long.

I opted to bounce around, getting close to tables but sometimes staying within ear shot of neighboring tables so I could eavesdrop on several conversations at once. The urge to participate was overwhelming. The audience were specifically instructed not to participate in the dates if they had not “paid the registration fee.” We did get to play with the characters during the open mingle before the dates started,  but otherwise we were in full observation mode. But being given the opportunity to walk around, watch a character or interaction that seemed funny/interesting/weird made the experience so enjoyable. I got to craft my own evening of entertainment. How often do you get to say that?

This interaction happened right behind me. I caught it in my periphery.
This interaction happened right behind me. I caught it in my periphery.

After the dates, the daters choose their matches. It was naturally hilarious. I wasn’t rooting for anyone in particular, but I was especially pleased when the guy who was 10-years married and the dark poet found a match in each other. Another character chose her boyfriend Ric, who silently followed her around the entire evening. Another declared that because we are all human and all connected, “Yes.”

 

The contrast between a traditional theatre introduction and the speed dating atmosphere clashed in a way I did not like. I wanted to feel like I was in an awkward speed dating event from the moment I walked in the door. I think encouraging the house manager to play along and having a host character would allow Williams to fully step into the producer role. The house manager could act like they’ve been roped into hosting this awkward evening and the host could create his/her own character to play along with the other actors. Then Williams could be the point person for producing the show. I think the result would be a seamless evening of awkwardness, which is a fun place to be.

I’m excited to see this show again. Knowing there will be different characters and a different environment will keep it fresh! The next performance is scheduled for late April or May, but I don’t know the exact date. Will update when I know more.

And kudos to the newly created Pocket Theater for producing. They’re doing a variety of improvised shows, sketch comedy, stand-up comedy, and fringe theatre, providing a new venue for Seattle theatre. It’s fucking awesome.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Theatrical Impression: THIRD at ArtsWest

I knew little about THIRD and playwright Wendy Wasserstein as I headed to ArtsWest last Thursday. As a student who attended a midwest liberal arts university, I knew the basics: Crimes of the Heart (managed to conflate Acting II scene studies and misremembered which plays we did), Wendy Wasserstein is an important female American playwright… and that’s about it. The reason I wanted to go came down to the director, Peggy Gannon. What I ended up seeing was a decent evening of theatre that left me with amazing feelings about Peggy’s ability to rise to the space’s staging challenges, Marty Mukhalian is UH-MAZING, and meh about Wendy Wasserstein.
Bill Higham and Marty Mukhalian. I teared up. Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com
Bill Higham and Marty Mukhalian. I teared up. Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

I get why audiences like Wasserstein plays. All of the jokes and commentary are on point: a clothing-optional dormitory, asking Third if he’s a Republican again and again, the bitter sweetness of a man’s mind as it deteriorates, and the political-university climate of the US in 2003. But it didn’t leave me feeling good, I felt empty. I wanted more. I wanted to dig deeper into the deteriorating father and his relationship with his daughter, the professor. I wanted to know more about the professor’s tense yet loving and adoring relationship with her own daughter. The family interested me the most, but it was the secondary story. But that’s not what the play was about, because it’s about the professor’s unfounded rampage on a student she barely knows. I got bored with Third, the catalyst, mostly because he never changed. He’s not supposed to. He was onstage to create an opportunity for the professor to change. Every time he came onstage he repeated a similar sentiment to the point where I equally dreaded his final scene and highly anticipated it because I knew the professor would give me much-needed closure. 

My seats in the house could have greatly contributed to my simultaneous feelings of satisfaction and emptiness. ArtsWest has a semi-thrust arrangement, with seats directly on the sides of the stage. I ended up house right, staring directly at the side of the set and characters. Peggy’s staging was impressive for the challenges she had from the set and the semi-thrust arrangement. (The set could have been pushed upstage about two feet to give the side houses a chance to see at an angle.) I rarely felt left out of a scene, except at the very end, and then only for a moment. The actors excelled at making sure everyone felt included. But how much of the story was lost to me because I wasn’t seeing it dead on? Looking at the press photos, everything looks unfamiliar because I didn’t see the play that way, I saw everything from the side. I think that would certainly encourage a feeling of being “left out.” Did my house right seat enable me as a “bystander” instead of an “engaged audience member?”  THIRD is such a realistic play–despite direct audience addresses and one surreal moment–that maybe it needs to be performed in a straight-on proscenium style stage.

Regardless, I stepped away from THIRD happy that I had had the opportunity to see Peggy’s work again, blessed to have been in Marty Mukhalian’s presence, and aware that a Wendy Wasserstein play is not my personal aesthetic.

THIRD plays through March 22 at ArtsWest in West Seattle.

Spin the Bottle – March Smut (2014)

At Spin the Bottle tonight, I will read my third ever smut piece. I’m calling it “Foodie Sex.”

I was recently dumped. Or something. It’s difficult to discern what happened exactly, since it all happened over text message, but one of my OkCupid dates self-imploded quicker than I thought possible. And about two weeks into our “relationship,” I realized we had never  truly eaten together. In the short time that I knew this person, we were physically intimate three times and I consumed this short list of food in his presence:

  • one-quarter of an apple
  • three slices of cheese
  • probably about four crackers
  • a chocolate-covered salted caramel infused with cannabis
  • two hunks out of a wedge of brie
  • three or four spreadings of an olive tapenade
  • a few more crackers
  • a bite of a chocolate chip cookie
  • a hunk of dark chocolate with almonds

That was over the span of three “dates.” The more I thought about how he and I interacted, the more I realized how precious and sacred food is in a relationship.

For a couple of weeks while I was seeing this person, I was dating someone else too. The second guy and I ate frequently together: from food trucks, late night gourmet food at cocktail bars, hungover brunch where I was wiping up my yolks with  toast, at a fusion restaurant with copious amounts of beer and even though he and I were barely intimate, I still feel like I knew him better.

Eating alone is considered unhealthy for longevity, and my living situation often leaves me sitting in front of my iPad with a plate on my lap, staring blankly ahead of me. So I crave eating meals with others, I yearn for conversation about ingredients and cooking methods, and I want to share those intimate moments with everyone I meet. It makes sense that I would especially desire to share the intimacy of eating with the person I take on as my lover.

So this smut story is about food and sex and intimacy. And it includes a Seinfeld reference. Win!

Foodie Sex

There are some boys around whom you do not eat. Max was one of those boys. He had a body like a tree trunk: steady and unyielding and a furry layer of hair all over his body that I just loved to nuzzle my nose into. Really, I didn’t even need to eat, because when we were together, the sex was enough. Well, almost enough.

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Theatrical Impression: and lose the name of action at On the Boards

Thursday night, I had the opportunity to attend On the Boards for the third time (ever) this year. If There, There disappointed and Usually Beauty Fails made me exuberant (who doesn’t love sexy Canadians dancing to French rock music?), then and lose the name of action fulfilled, challenged, and delighted me. (Also featured as “Returning” on the On the Boards Blog.

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my favorite image that shows most of the set, an entirely white “useless” room

and lose the name of action spoke to my soul. It’s not just a dance piece. It’s an installation, a theatrical event that reminds me of how I want to create theatre. It fuses philosophical arguments (Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous) with a film by Boru O’Brien O’Connell and movements by award-winning contemporary dancers.

The dancers created a spectrum, a cloud, a shifting organism of several cells. They reminded me that as humans, we are more similar than I remember. The body imagery I encounter in my day-to-day media consumption is very much unlike my own physical self. When I am confronted with nudity, it’s often with a  sexual bent. In and lose the name of action I was confronted with nudity in a way that spoke to me on a level beneath my skin. It made me happy to see bodies of different shapes, sizes, and ages, but that’s what happens in dance right? Just means I should attend more dance shows.

Another reason to see more dance is because I’m now asking several questions that will inform my practice. What are our senses? How do we perceive? What is a narrative? How can we express ourselves beyond the scope of words?

I entered the room, it was fully encased in white: two white screens, a large white curtain, a smaller white curtain, a white floor, a white box, white chairs, a white parachute hanging from the ceiling. The faintest sound pervaded the room, but there was so much talking, I couldn’t discern the noise. It wasn’t music, but it did sound like the rumblings of something about to begin. (As I type now, I have to listen to Lou Reed in order to remind myself of the “noise” that created focus in the room tonight.) The music somehow morphed into a ritual chant/song where we were all holding hands. It reminded me of ceremonies I have attended and I realized what we were doing: we were opening the circle to allow whatever mystery would come to enter.

The meditation from my buddhism book for this day was titled “Returning.” The passage is simple, and the core of what I understand to be meditation: that in our life, we are always straying from our center, so it is our breath that will help us to return. “Breathe through your straying and re-enter the moment at hand.” and lose the name of action began simply, then strayed into several points, then returned to its center, which was the white room. At the end, I wanted to stay in the room forever, now a “useless space.” I felt incomplete, the circle was not closed. There was no binding ritual, no send off, not even a “go if you must, but stay if you will” because it was understood with silence and emptiness: The piece is now over. Go home. Gutierrez opened a circle of learning and perception and has now left it open. It will inform my every thought for minutes, hours, days, and years to come.

We struggle with our perceptions, straying away from the moment at hand, thinking ahead and beyond to what lies ahead or what came before. How did I feel in that moment when he said what he said? Gutierrez reminded me to remain in the moment as I watched him and The Powerful People dance. How do I feel in this moment as she moves how she moves? It’s that feeling that you had when she moved her arm, or he threw that chair, or she sang those notes that you must struggle to remember, because now only the ghost of it lingers.

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the text spoken through the speakers moved across the stage as this dancer performed her solo
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Black Like Us at Annex Theatre

Annex Theatre just closed Black Like Us, written by Rachel Atkins and directed by Jose Amador.

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Kia Pierce (Denise) and Marquicia Domniguez (Tanya). Photo by Shane Regan.

This show, like our last winter show Undo, managed to open up to demographics we had not had in our audiences in the past. We did not even realize our success until late in the run, when we sold out the final four performances and most audience members said, “I didn’t hear about this show until two weeks ago,” or “I’ve never even heard of the Annex theatre!”

As a company, we knew it was our responsibility to give the audiences an opportunity just to talk about the play, since it brings up so many questions that it leaves unanswered. I was present for the talk back on Friday night, after the performance, where several people stayed to listen to the playwright, director, and some of the actors. I’m including it here for you to read! Black Like Us was a play that spoke beyond race, beyond black and white, and brought us an opportunity to produce a play about families in Seattle.

Black Like Us Post-Play Discussion

Moderated by Pamala Mijatov (Artistic Director)

Since this show raises a lot of questions, but does not answer them, we decided to put together a post-play discussion to address some of these questions with the audience.

Rachel (playwright) spoke about support in the show’s development from 10-minute to 20-minute to 1-hour long versions with various companies: Live Girls, Annex’s Second Date, Rain City Projects, BrownBox, and others.

General questions about the show and performance:

Where did the idea for the last scene come from? The first scene was the three sisters discovering the box. The 20-minute version added the 1958 scene before the sisters discovering the box. The final scene was not in the one-hour version, it was added for the full production. As Rachel thought about the parallel timelines of the play, she continually thought of milestones for Florence/Maxine and she came upon the moment that would end up being the most poignant: if it was Maxine who came up with idea for passing. She wanted the last scene to context to the information in the play, but also leave the audience wondering more.

Patron previously saw a play at Berkeley Rep set in 1800s in Louisiana with similar themes of advantages to have a lighter skin color, wanted to know Rachel’s background, since she is a white American writing this play and the play the patron saw in Berkeley was written by a woman of color.

Chelsea (Florence) spoke about her instant connection to Rachel’s writing style and ability to write for a black audience and also write beyond race, expressing the human condition.

Jose (director) believes that there are no hard and fast rules for who can write what based on color of their skin. His parents were white and black Puerto Rican, and when he came to America, he had to deal with just being “black.” This play spoke to him on the level of identity and choosing to be one or the other.

Did actors have input for the story? Although there was feedback from the producers and director, the actors did not have direct input to the plot of the script, but they did have extensive discussion and address questions in rehearsals. The personalities of every character came out through learning the dialogue. McKenna (Amy) said she observed language of the script being changed depending on how actresses could say a line more “naturally.” Rachel was present and involved in the rehearsal process, and readily received feedback from actors and the producers.

“Where you sit is where you stand.” A patron spoke about how the race issue was very clear, and how race is introduced to address privilege and advantage and non-privilege and disadvantage. Chelsea spoke about her experience as a black woman from a white family, always knowing what it is like to be a black woman in a white society, and then making the choice to play the part of a woman who chooses to pass for white.

What compelled you to write this project? What drove you to write it, and what is your statement with this play? Rachel grew up in the 1970s and 1980s as a young Jewish girl with a black father. She heard stories about his family having a wide range of colors of skin, like her father’s father sometimes passing for white. The first scene of the three sisters discovering the box is about “How do we define ourselves? What does it mean? What assumptions do we make about who we see? How do we present ourselves in society?” A lot of people spoke to Rachel about their family secrets, which shows that the themes resonant with people. It is a question of identity and what identity means. Also, as her stepdad was passing away, she knew she had to write the play for him and to honor him and to honor his place in her life. 

Pamala spoke for Annex and why we, as a company, championed it: it’s about an issue, but it’s not about an issue, it’s about a family. “Complicated people doing complicated things.”

McKenna spoke about the characters being in a private space (their homes in most scenes) so that they were able to bring up uncomfortable questions in a “safe space.” 

Rachel hopes to continue to produce the play in other spaces and continue to develop it. Ready and willing to disseminate the script to classes.

Why does Florence become a feminist, even though we don’t see her in that role onstage and she has a domineering husband? Pamala discovered through script development that “people don’t always behave in narratively consistent ways.” Dior (Maxine) and Chelsea talked about how Florence has removed her racial identity from her life, so she can no longer say “I am a black woman.” She sees Maxine stepping into being a black activist, so feminism becomes something that she can connect to. Florence can’t say “I’m black,” she can’t even say “I’m a black woman,” but she can say “I am a woman.” Maxine gave Florence the ability to be a strong independent woman (as we see in the final scene of the play), then Florence gave up being black. Meaghan Darling (audience member) said, “we are all much better women in front of our daughters so that they will take the best in to their lives.” So Florence passed on strength to Donna by being a feminist. The daughter-mother relationship is also present in the play, and Florence’s choice brings up what does it mean to be a feminist?

More audience reactions: Loved that men were spoken about but the men were not in the show. Sandra is believable that she wants to get everybody together, she is the comic relief, and she also brought the other cousins (Denise and Tanya) together to deepen their relationship. Jose chose to direct the eight women all together because of the challenge of seeing everyone together onstage, half of them African-American, and is glad to know that it worked as a whole.

Patron who grew up in Seattle sees the issues she grew up with in the play and other topics present in our community today being broached in the play. Maxine mentions that it was difficult to organize in the 1960s, that the Bon Marché was not a store black people would shop at (this patron would shop at Nordstrom instead). It really is a local play and resonated strongly and accurately for people from Seattle, making the city a character in the play. This play is not the deep South, it brings up issues that come directly from Seattle.

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Theatrical Impression: Frankenstein at Book-It Rep

[What is a Theatrical Impression? Click here.]

Last Thursday, I saw Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus at Book-It Repertory Theatre (running through March 9). It was only the second night of previews, but there was a nearly full house and the energy was strong and promising for the cast. I know they had a long weekend ahead of them and had been dealing with actor illness and difficult tech in the days preceding. Overall, the production was enjoyable, but I think it could have been much shorter (it was 2 1/2 hours long) and more cohesive in aesthetics.

I am pretty familiar with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I read it for a bizarre project my university developed for incoming freshmen. (Ideally, all incoming classmen would read the same book then discuss it with people we would never interact with the following four years. Naturally, there was only one person per small group who read the book in its entirety and I was one of those.) Also, my father (and my show-going partner for this production) taught Frankenstein in his English classes for most of my life. From his familiarity developed over several years, he created multimedia lesson plans and watched every film iteration of the book. So he was quick to point out what was missing from the production and what was added in.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to cobble together an impression. In general, the additions were strong for the benefit of the female actors. But some were unnecessary, because they detracted from the general aesthetic of the show. I don’t know exactly what David Quicksall wanted me to take away from his production. Of course, I entered the theatre with preconceived notions, but it still felt disjointed overall. I think this was due to two damaging changes: the additional letter at the top of the play and the truncation of the Creature’s story (the best part of the damn book).

Adding a letter means that the play then became a story (the Creature’s) within another story (Victor’s) within a letter (the Captain’s) within ANOTHER letter (his sister’s, completely fabricated). The novel is already over-complicated in the sense of its meta-ness. Why add another letter? What does it all mean? If the Captain is writing a letter at the top of the show, do we NEED to know why? The first moment of a play should be solely used to express to the audience this is why we are gathered here today. Were we gathered to ask when the Captain was coming home or were we gathered to question our humanity and savageness and if they are synonymous? I think it is the latter.

The first act spent most of its time on the very first part of Victor’s story, meaning the Creature got less stage time, when it his story that makes us think about what it means to be human. Are we truly enlightened beings, when we we will easily forsake someone in need because he seems like he might hurt us? Or are we all just savages, no better or worse than the creature with basic desires of shelter, food,  companionship, and knowledge? What is a savage? The noble savage is a common theme in literature (Brave New World was one of my favorite books in middle school) and has been a common theme in the news recently; Trayvon Martin‘s shooting first comes to mind. I think Quicksall lost a grand opportunity to convey an important and current theme to us for the sake of comedic gore  in a pseudo-gothic setting with a flimsy, yet over-complicated set.

I think the play will come together. This was only the second preview, so as the actors become more confident with their stage movements and transitions, it will become a well-loved piece. Most of the audience gave them a standing ovation for a preview, and I think it will only continue to be so well-received. However, I still think the script could have used another pass: one, for accuracy and two, to give more of the dialogue to mouths and motivations of the characters. The end result would have been a more cohesive aesthetic and a less disjointed performance.

Theatrical Impressions: American Wee-Pie at Seattle Public Theater

[For an explanation of my 'theatrical expressions,' read here.]

Last night I took myself out to see American Wee-Pie by Lisa Dillman, performing at Seattle Public Theater (through February 16).

David Goldstein and Tracy Leigh in American Wee-Pie
David Goldstein and Tracy Leigh in American Wee-Pie

I was expecting something heartwarming and delightful, light and fluffy without a lot of heaviness to weigh it down. Instead I saw a middling piece that didn’t make me laugh out loud very often at all. Now, I love fluff as much as the next person (I routinely watched Friends and Seinfeld until I no longer had a TV and I adore New Girl, against my better judgement). But unfortunately for me, Wee-Pie wasn’t very funny at all.

I did appreciate the set and costume designs, which were executed quite lovingly, creating a fun universe that I was able to immerse myself into for a quick 90 minutes. But the script was as flat as I imagine the bizarre (and unappetizing) concoction of a cake baked into a pie crust is.

David Goldstein was the best part of the show (which is unfortunate for me as well, as a HUGE Tracy Leigh fan) with his physical comedy making me throw back my head back. He tasted his cupcakes like I do my coffee, and I adored it. But at the end, [SPOILER ALERT] the character reveals that Pableu (a great ridiculous French name) is not his real name at all. It’s Randy. And he dips into a Midwestern accent (the play takes place in unknown Northern Midwest), BUT WITH NO EXPLANATION. There he is, the end of the play, confirming our suspicions that his French accent is terrible ON PURPOSE and he confesses that he is not who he says he is HE IS LIVING A LIE and he doesn’t ask the protagonist to keep his secret??? Or say that he’s going to tell his wife???? HOW CAN YOU DROP A BOMB LIKE THAT?

I spent the last minutes of the play thinking about Randy and how gross a cake baked into a pie crust would be. (I like my food moist and rich, hence my love for frosting and pie filling.)

I also found the mailman creepy instead of endearing and was waiting for him to admit that he was schtooping the dead mother or had murdered her. Or both. Every time he came onstage I had to remind myself that this was not that type of play, and that was difficult.

Seeing the production made me think more about what I want to see on stage. What is my aesthetic? I commend SPT for producing this fluffy gem by a local playwright, but I know now that it’s not my slice of pie. But then what is my slice of pie? If I can critique this piece so strongly, what I am putting out into the world to counteract it? Currently, nothing.

So instead I step back, think about breath and timing (all of the cues were hit a little too early, undermining any sympathy I could have had for the characters) and aesthetic. I like magic in plays, I like spice, I like confrontation. And I like enough space to move, to think, to exist in a world that will only exist for a short amount of time. So I should work on that. I will continue to pursue the ephemeral and make that my focus.

610028-frederick-gravel-signe-spectacle-sent

Theatrical Impression: ‘Usually Beauty Fails’ at On the Boards

Frédérick Gravel’s Usually Beauty Fails toured to Seattle last weekend at On the Boards. I knew about this show earlier in January, and was already hooked by the trailer. (The video link I’ve chosen above shows more of the different pieces, even though the audio quality is not as good.) First off, it is a dance piece, and second, it looked edgy and modern and fun.

I knew little about it going in, but went based solely on recommendation that I would love it. And I did.

Gravel combined challenging contemporary dance, new music reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie and other twee indie artists, rock and roll music, classical music, silence, rock show lighting, champagne, formal wear, and personal addresses to the audience that made for a visceral experience unlike any other I’d had in a long time.

My favorite parts were when certain dancers were highlighted. I found myself drawn to specific types of people, although every dancer was excellent. Gravel was the weakest dancer, but it was also a possible combination of his ultra long limbs and that he was choreographer, dancer, singer, musician, speaker. The other bodies on stage came off as a powerful pillars of strength, but they only had one objective to focus on.

I’m easily impressed when it comes to physical feats of strength, so I genuinely enjoyed watching the various exciting movements of counterbalance and dead weights as dancers jumped into each other and fell directly to the ground.

There was also nudity in the show, but not lewd. Even my showgoing partner’s favorite piece–which was two dancers touching each other’s erogenous zones with stoic facial expressions and no extraneous movement as the singer crooned in the back, “don’t turn me on”–wasn’t crass or inappropriate. Instead, it felt familiar. These are the same interactions we go through with each lover, while we succumb to the pressure to “perform” and react to what they are doing, as if it were the most original act. But it’s not original, we all go through these motions, and what matters is someone’s reactions. If you don’t react to a person’s touch, their touch loses more than its meaning. The touch loses its heart.

I was also prompted to go to this piece after reading Melody Datz’s review in The Stranger. She pointed out her disappointment with the lack of female voice in Usually Beauty Fails. As I watched the first female soloist perform after the first group number and counted the number of female to male dancers (3 and 3), I started to look for what Datz had mentioned. [update: I misattributed an opinion I read somewhere else on the same day and never went back to double check that Datz's review is where I read it in the first place. I ended up conflating two opinions! Regardless, I entered the performance space on the lookout for how the bodies interacted with each other, which was especially poignant with the first pas de deux.] Were the female voices underrepresented? The first pas de deux was between a short and lithe female dancer with long long hair and a tall and muscular and tattooed male dancer with a lot of carrying the woman and grabbing her neck as she rebuffed the man’s advancements. Was I watching something misogynistic? But the movement was fascinating, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Was I loving it or was I hating it? Was it okay to do both?

Gravel spoke a few times throughout the show, showing off his vulnerability. It was after these truth-telling moments (how he composed his sentences, the openness of his speech and face) that I watched him perform his solo and I realized that the female voices were not the only underrepresented voices onstage. The other male voices were also not fully allowed to express themselves. And that makes sense, because this isn’t an ensemble of performers all working to portray a singular message. This is Gravel’s piece, this is his troupe, he replaces bodies as needed, and he is expressing himself. And that’s okay.

Once I got on board with the fact that I was watching Gravel’s interpretations of “what happens if I choose the weakest support for my wrists, turning them upside down” or “getting serious” with pas de deux that involve constantly having to shift the ladies’s dresses back down over their hips, I was even more into the show.

Usually Beauty Fails smashes so many clashing aesthetics and ideals together, but it can’t smash them all. Gravel is only one man.