Friday, September 23, 2011

theatre notes. september skies.

S. and I headed down to the Odd Duck Studio for what we thought was going to be a sketch comedy parody of Back to the Future. I had a two-for-one coupon. We were early, so we ate a hot dog around the corner at Po Dog and then went back to the theater. Neither of us paid any attention to the posters outside the theater, which in retrospect was rather foolish of us. The Odd Duck Studio is a hole-in-the-wall theater that takes you into a little storefront with bars on the windows, down a hallway lined with various art/theater notices, widening into a small concession stand/ticket office, and then finally to the 35-seat black-box theater itself. The kid at the concession stand was perplexed by our two-for-one coupon, then politely told us it was pay-what-you-can, which only confused us further. Then we took our seats and looked more closely at the program: We were about to see September Skies, and not the Pork Filled Players. WHOOPS.

Eventually we figured it out: the website which proclaimed that Pork to the Future was "coming up next" was out of date, and in fact it had occurred two years earlier. There is something fateful and poetic about showing up two years late for a parody of Back to the Future. TWO. YEARS. LATE. It was all the more poetic because the play we were about to see instead is about fate. The story takes place on September 10, 2001 and early in the morning of September 11, 2001. The setting is Boston Logan Airport (with an interlude in a hotel bar). Anyone who has not spent the past ten years in the remote Amazon will know what will happen to these two people, who through various twists of fate and choices find themselves on the 7:45 am American Airlines flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. This flight left Boston on the morning of September 11, 2001, and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City an hour later. The play ends as they board the plane, but we already know their fate, because it is written down in our histories.

It is not really fair to call September Skies a 9/11 play. The circumstances and timeline of its setting give it a kind of immediacy, an emotional connection for nearly everyone who sees it, but that is only because 9/11 is still new for us. A century from now it might be seen the way we see something set the day before the sailing of the Titanic. We all know that they're going to hit the iceberg, but what matters is the human story spread before us, and how we connect to it. And here, the story is about fate: about cancelled flights and chance meetings with someone met briefly at a party some time ago, about falling into - or out of - love, and self-doubt, and the choices we make. And how cell phones were really, really tiny about ten years ago before the iPhone came along and turned everything around again. It's an interlude, a moment between a man and a woman, where nothing is decided but for the hope that perhaps, someday, they might meet again. Haven't we all had that?

September Skies, written and directed by Jim Moran and produced by the Eclectic Theatre Company, is at the Odd Duck Studio through October 1st.

Monday, September 19, 2011

theatre notes. two queens, one throne.

J. and I went to see Mary Stuart at ACT on Sunday afternoon. I'd been looking forward to it ever since I saw the cast list, months back. Anne Allgood I've adored since Rock 'n' Roll a few years back; I met her in the audience at O Lovely Glowworm and she was unfailingly kind and gracious. Suzanne Bouchard I've loved, as I've said countless times before, since 1992. Either one would guarantee my attendance; the thought of the two of them together practically made my heart explode in anticipation. The excitement grew even greater when I saw the rest of the cast, most of them familiar to me.

Somehow I'd missed out on studying Tudor England in school, and I didn't really know much about Mary, Queen of Scots, or even Elizabeth I, or the histories, stories, and myths that surround them. In a way my ignorance made it easier to fall into the story, without the distraction of looking for the seams where truth and fiction are knitted together. All that was left was passion and intrigue, faith and love, desire, hope, doubt, and jealousy...There were audible gasps from the audience at all the dramatic moments - there were a lot of them - and at intermission I turned to J. with my jaw hanging open, unable to utter anything more than "OH MY GOD."

The play was electric. There's no other way to describe it. I've seen a lot of plays this year, and this one stood out - for the energy and chemistry of the cast, the way all the elements fell together into a smoothly polished piece. It was tight. Sometimes there are weak points in an otherwise solid production - a script that feels unfinished, a director who's new to the game, clashing accents that jar the ear, an actor who isn't quite up to the rest of the cast. There was none of that here. The two queens - Allgood and Bouchard - are so brilliant that halfway through, I had the sudden feeling that they could have easily changed places, Anne as Elizabeth and Suzanne as Mary, instead of the other way around. You don't often see that. My heart was still pounding, hours later.

I'll be thinking about this one, for a long time yet.

Mary Stuart is at A Contemporary Theatre through October 9.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

theatre notes. inherit the wind.

The Erickson Theatre off Broadway is one of my favorite theaters in Seattle, not least because it is only four blocks from my apartment. It's a black box, with maybe 120 seats, give or take, the stage an open rectangle at one end. "Backstage" is usually whatever space is behind some piece of scenery at the rear, as far as I can tell, and changes between scenes are lightning-quick. I've been here many times, now, usually for a Strawberry Theatre Workshop production (the exception was the New Century Theatre Company's O Lovely Glowworm), and I wonder what will happen in 2012 when the Balagan Theatre moves in and takes over the space.

It's been nearly twenty years since I read Inherit the Wind in middle school. We watched the movie in class, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. I'd forgotten most of the story. When I heard that Strawberry Theatre Workshop would be producing it this fall, I knew that I would be there. I recognized many of the actors from previous plays; while a play or a playwright will catch my eye, the cast is what ultimately guarantees my attendance. Here, as usual, there is a tightly knit ensemble orbiting around the two planets of Drummond and Brady, some of the actors switching back and forth between characters almost at the drop of a hat. Literally.

After all this time, the play remains as powerful and relevant as it ever was - after twenty years since I read it, fifty-some years since the play was written, eighty-six years after the Scopes trial on which Inherit the Wind was based took place. What are we fighting for in the name of righteousness? How do we fight for something without understanding what it is we're really fighting for? How do we cling to a belief that we can't defend? How do you defend the breaking of an indefensible law? I wish I could remember what I thought of this play twenty years ago. Maybe I am still asking the same questions. Maybe I already understood the answers, and have since forgotten them.

Inherit the Wind plays at the Erickson Theatre through October 8th, produced by the Strawberry Theatre Workshop. They do good work. You should support them.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

a few thoughts on regional theatre.

I grew up in Seattle. My first play was, as I've said before, James and the Giant Peach at Seattle Children's Theatre in 1989. I fell in love with A Contemporary Theatre with Shadowlands, and then The Revenger's Comedies in 1992. With the exception of My Favorite Year in New York City (1992) and a few thrilling seasons of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (1996 and 1997), all the theatre I have known has taken place in Seattle. It did not occur to me that what was performed in my city was "regional theatre" until Intiman Theatre won a Tony Award for 'Best Regional Theatre" some five or six years ago. It did not really occur to me that "regional theatre" could be dirty words until Mike Daisey gave a benefit performance of How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep last Spring.

Daisey was talking about how a friend of his - nameless, so it could be anyone, anywhere - felt as though being the artistic director out in the hinterlands was like being in exile. (That may not be quite what he said, but it's how I remember it). The arrogance of this nameless director made me furious. That was six months ago and dammit, I'm still pissed. I don't know who this friend was, which podunk city he was stagnating in, whose frontier dust he was eager to shake off his pant cuffs. It could have been Seattle, or it could have been Paducah. All he wanted to do was to head back to the bright lights of the Big City. The Big City is New York, of course. When it comes to Theatre you have London and you have New York City and if you are anywhere else you may as well be doing community productions with amateurs who should probably stick to their day jobs. This is bullshit.

The only way for regional theatre to transcend its label of "regional theatre" is to be produced by people who consider it to be the end unto itself, and not the means to an end. The latter treats his theatre as a ticket back to civilization, to his imagined Shangri-La. This shows only contempt for the audience, and in the end we will not weep when the hollow shell left behind falls apart. The former at least gives the impression that he is there because he cares about the place and the people who bring life to the theatre - the actors who live and work in this town, and the audiences who come to see them. Such people are Jerry Manning at Seattle Rep, Kurt Beattie and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi at ACT, Greg Carter at the Strawberry Theatre Workshop, and Scott Nolte and Karen Lund at the Taproot Theatre, to say nothing of the collective passion of the actors who make up the New Century Theatre Company. These are just the people whose theatres I frequent regularly. This is Seattle, a theatre kind of town, and there are many, many more.

The more time I spend in the theatre - it is only September and I have seen at least twenty plays since January - the more I feel that three things are needed: Love, passion, and faith. I add one more thing - a sense of community. A sense that my city is made up of dozens of theatres large and small and one giant repertory of actors, many of whom I have loved since that first season at ACT in 1992. This is one of the great things about being a grown-up in the city of my childhood, of seeing the same actors again and again, growing and evolving as the years slip past, challenging themselves and me as well with every new part. That thrill when I see a familiar face - often many familiar faces - in my program, it never goes away. I hope it never does.