Thursday, February 24, 2011

love letter.

(to theater).

There was young laughter in the audience at The K of D last Sunday. I'm more aware of it now, seeing young faces in the audience at intermission and hearing their voices as I leave the theater. Often they are students clearly there for a class, maybe for an extra credit paper. But it makes me glad to see them fall in love with the theater as I did, twenty years ago. You can see it in their faces, the excitement, the thrill of it all. It means that a new generation will carry on, will make art, will support art. There is hope, now. A few summers back I sat in half-empty theaters and worried about the future. That's not to say the tide has completely turned; it's still hard for theaters to make money, to keep actors and directors employed, to keep producing works both old and new.

The first play I remember is a production of James and the Giant Peach (based on the novel by Roald Dahl) at Seattle Children's Theatre. Back then it was at the Woodland Park Zoo, the old Poncho Theatre tucked away in a park. We screamed when the giant peach came rolling down and cheered when the ghastly aunts get squashed flat. That was my first memory of the theater. The second came three years later at ACT, with Shadowlands, followed immediately by The Revengers' Comedies. The love and admiration I felt for the actors in these plays has continued unabated for nearly twenty years now, for Michael Winters and Laurence Ballard and R. Hamilton Wright and Suzanne Bouchard. The list is longer now, the list of actors whose names attached to a production guarantees that I will want to see it.

I felt, that recent Sunday afternoon at the Seattle Rep, there will be another generation enthralled by the joy of live theater. That they will remember Renata Friedman's electric performance the same way I recall Suzanne Bouchard's as Karen Knightly 19 years ago. That it will keep them coming back the same way I keep coming back, again and again.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

theatre notes. K of D.

I'd noticed Renata Friedman in The Female of the Species at ACT last year, when she played a overwrought student who takes an iconic feminist writer hostage in her English country home. Her gangly energy (one review compared her to Olive Oyl) fueled the physical comedy around the verbal quips that ricocheted back and forth across the stage. It left me looking forward to more. When I saw that Friedman was the sole star of Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of The K of D: An Urban Legend, I knew I had to see it.

The K of D is about the mysterious events that take place in a small town over the course of a summer. A single performer inhabits over a dozen different characters, the various townspeople whose whispers build up a legend around a single, lonely girl, Charlotte McGraw, who stopped speaking the day her twin brother was hit by a car and killed. Even taller and wirier than I remembered, Friedman continuously transformed herself from one character to the next, with nothing but voice, inflection, posture, movement to mark the changes. It was staggering. Those endless arms and legs flung themselves across the stage with an electric, kinetic force, twining themselves around lampposts, gesturing with a sudden, surprising tenderness.

There was something about the play that reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird or other stories about how children - though in this case, they are teenagers - can band together with nothing much to hold them besides, perhaps, propinquity. Or a secret. Or a mystery. And how whispers can grow from a story that passes for truth, and from there, expands into a legend. The things that are clear are how the loss of your twin, your other half, can leave such an aching void in your heart that the silence can wrap itself around you, and that this silence has a kind of unshakable power.

This is the second play I've seen at Seattle Rep this season (the first was Three Tall Women) and both times I've been completely blown away. Everything was perfect - the music, the set, the actors, that intimate connection between the stage and the audience. Extraordinary things are being done here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

on language. (English).

My English and American literature lecturer when I was a freshman in college was an enormously tall British graduate student with an absolutely impenetrable Midlands accent. He once recommended The Buddha of Suburbia as an interesting read, only it sounded more like "Teh Booba ef Suboobeyah." Took me ages to figure it out. Class was always an adventure in twisting my brain around his words, searching for familiar words spoken in his unfamiliar accent.

Language is tricky. The lines between dialect and accent are blurred, as we learn as children when reading The Secret Garden (Martha and Dickon's unfamiliar Yorkshire vocabulary) or Strawberry Girl (the hardscrabble south of Florida with its flat vowels and hard words). My ear can separate the Irish from the Scottish and the English from the Australian, but not pinpoint the region or city. Within what we think of as a generic "accent" there exists another range of variations.

I thought of Mary Lennox and her confusion at the Yorkshire words she didn't know as I was reading Richard Milward's Apples. Set in his native Middlesbrough, it uses language in a way I've never seen. I thought again of Daniel Bye's blog post in The Guardian and how thrilling it was for him to hear his native Tesside accent in the stage adaptation of Apples (and in the novel as well). For me, someone who speaks English as a second language and without any discernible (American) accent, this idea of feeling a connection to the place where you grew up through language is utterly fascinating.