Tuesday, April 05, 2011

*Race* review (at Interplayers)

at Interplayers through April 16

In its union of insightful script, well-practiced directing and subtle acting, Race represents just about the best of Spokane-area (non-musical) theater.

Take an early moment: Two defense lawyers — one black, one white — are deciding whether to take on the case of a mega-rich white man accused of raping a black woman. The black partner (David Casteal) points out to the alleged rapist (Patrick Treadway) that black people will be thrilled that he’s guilty — but not simply because he’s white. “No. Because of the calendar,” Henry explains. “Fifty years ago. You’re white? Same case. Same facts. You’re innocent.”

From “he can’t be convicted of it” to “he definitely did it”: in half a century, we’ve traveled from black oppression to white guilt.

The rich guy, Charles, he’s trapped by his social class and skin color. Public opinion and the legal system are stacked against him. That’s so unfair.

And at that point, you could just sense the opening-night audience — mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged, comfortably established — start to shift in their seats. So unfair.

Henry delivers another smackdown to Charles: “And p.s. I don’t like all this bullshit about the world is treating you unfairly, as it also treated you unfairly when you were born to wealth, but I don’t believe that you complained then.”

Let’s see now — people lining up against you because of your race, social class, gender. Welcome to what it’s like to be a working-class black woman.

The audience got very quiet. And then Treadway, who had been seated, back to the audience, in the interrogation seat (it’s usually important in a David Mamet play, who’s sitting, who’s standing, who just got told to sit down and who did the telling) turned to the audience, lifted his chin, and made his face take the brunt of Justin Schmidt’s full-glare lighting.

Soon after, Marilyn Langbehn’s direction capitalizes on the script’s metatheatrical opportunities by having Kevin Partridge (as the white lawyer, the James Spader role in last year’s Broadway run) turn to one-third of the thrust-stage audience, addressing us, directly implicating us as if we are jurors seated in judgment. And here we were thinking that race and gender relations are workable, that the law is actually dedicated to something so unprofitable as the pursuit of truth and justice.

For this thoughtful, sometimes startling, always engaging production, let’s get some criticisms out of the way. It’s not elegant-looking enough. These are people of privilege, and it needs to look polished, which is beyond Interplayers’ current capabilities. The production’s not polished yet, either, in terms of memorization or pace: Aside from line-wobbles, junctures that need some air in order to register are being rushed past in the actors’ urgency to shoot through all that rat-a-tat-tat David Mamet-speak. And will someone please take in the sides of Treadway’s suit jacket? Because he’s swimming in it, and no wealthy man has that bad a tailor.

But there’s much else to admire: Langbehn’s choice to keep actors nearly motionless amid the flying accusations of the opening sequence, spotlighting the words. At various junctures, multiple forms of shame and guilt wash over the characters. Partridge’s lowered brow of false concern, the way he peers over his glasses with guile, the way he hunkers over Charles just before delivering a good psychological skewering. Casteal, acting too much with his hands early on, becoming a crowd favorite with his sassy, call-and-response-rhythm put-downs. (You can sense how Henry has blended the streets and the law school.)

As the partners’ new associate, Nike Imoru returns to the Interplayers stage — a gazelle about to pounce, arms back, legs ready to spring like pogo sticks right out of her professional-office-attire-but-still-provocative high heels. In the final act, Imoru flashes her stately, glaring, accusatory eyes — a sharp contrast to her submissive, steno-pad-scribbling secretary’s demeanor in the early going. By that point, Partridge’s Jack, reduced to nervous stuttering, has lost most of his swagger. The power balance has shifted, and with it our attitudes about law, race, gender, ourselves, our social position.

Whites oppressed blacks, and now blacks assume that every white person will continue to do the same. And they do, Mamet suggests, even if only subconsciously. That’s just the way it is, Bruce Hornsby sang, and we are all caught in a cycle of mutual distrust.

Like the electricity that crackled around this theater back in 1994 when it produced the abortion drama Keely and Du, Race has the potential to alter some people’s thinking and break the cycle.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

Recent stuff at Bloglander

Visit the Theater Blog at inlander.com to view
a slide show of Metamorphoses at the Civic (through April 17),
a slide show of Race at Interplayers (through April 16),
and a review of A Streetcar Named Desire at Gonzaga (which closed March 27).
THEATER THIS WEEKEND appears there every Thursday.
Or just visit the Inlander home page, the Arts & Culture page or The Inlander's Facebook page.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Raisin' the roof in CdA

When Coeur d'Alene's Lake City Playhouse production of Almost, Maine — which was supposed to be Idaho's entrant for the AACT regional competition in Richland, Wash., next month — had to withdraw in favor of installing a new roof ... well, I guess they weren't kidding. (photo by George Green)

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*9 to 5: The Musical* preview

For Thursday's print version in The Inlander, this article got cut, and then cut again. (This is a tragedy: Bobo's prose is deathless.) Therefore, if you want to read all about Dee Hoty's emulation of Lily Tomlin; her real-life encounters with sexist sleazeballs; what her pre-show routine is like; and a bit about the musical's songs ... here ya go.

If you’re performing in the musical version of a movie that everybody knows, and you’re playing a part identified with a particular actress, then here’s how to pay her homage: Rip her off. But be nice about it.
In the national tour of 9 to 5 (March 24-27 at the INB Center), Dee Hoty is playing the Lily Tomlin role of Violet, the office veteran who mentors two co-workers in their shared struggle against their sexist jerk of a boss.
“Steal from the best,” Hoty says. (That's her in the photo in 2008, when she played Mame at the 5th Street in Seattle.) “If it’s a great idea, you should have it for yourself.” What Hoty found fascinating about Lily Tomlin’s performance in the 1980 movie “was her stillness. It’s a real lesson in how less is more. Just let the words do the work — you don’t have to do all these big gesticulations.”
Late in the first act, for example, when the three women are fearful that they’ve acted out Violet’s fantasy and actually poisoned Mr. Hart’s coffee, everybody runs off seeking medical help. “In the hospital scene, when everyone is going berserk and totally losing it, I’m very controlled in the way [director] Jeff [Calhoun] has redone the show,” Hoty says.
“’You gotta know what to do,/ You gotta do it in a hurry … slam the phone, open the door’ — there’s a whole dance for the ensemble there, but in the middle of it all is my tutorial with Judy. I try to be the calm in the storm.”

Hoty’s wily veteran is joined by Judy the newbie (Mamie Parris) and Doralee the hubba-hubba blonde (Diana DeGarmo, the American Idol runner-up in 2004, the year of Jennifer Hudson and William Hung).
The kind of sexism the characters face isn’t just a relic of the ‘80s — Hoty has faced it herself. “One time,” she recalls, “I had a film audition for a kind of courtesan-y girl in the Old West, one of those dance hall girls. And this was with a famous director and a famous casting director, who will remain nameless. So we went into the room to read, and the casting director began to snuggle up to me. In the moment, I figured that’s what the part called for. I didn’t feel threatened, I just played along — that’s just who this girl is, I thought. Well, he started reaching toward somewhere he shouldn’t … and then he stopped himself.
“I haven’t had a lot of those ‘Hey, baby, I’ll make it worth your while …’  moments,” Hoty says, using her most gravelly voice. “Honestly? I’m a woman of a certain age. Nobody’s making passes at me now. It’s not like I’m 24.”
But that’s OK. “I don’t have a giant ego, because that won’t get you very far in this business,” Hoty says. “I mean, when I roll out of bed in the morning, I’m not thinking of myself as ‘three-time Tony nominee Dee Hoty.’”
She’s thinking of herself as a working actor who’s got a job. (She's already working with her agent to set up a part in a play this August, since the 9 to 5 tour ends in July.)

Ah, yes, life on the road. For an actress in a musical about the routine of office work, what’s the daily routine like?
Hoty — who travels with her three-legged Pomeranian — spends a lot of time describing her routine with Sophie the dog.
Before shows, she says, “I vocalize in the shower. Then I do a little mini-workout — I call it a 'hotel workout' — with those stretchy bands. Then, one hour before the show, I get to the theater and get into my ‘smalls’ [i.e., underwear]. I start my makeup, and I have a ‘hair call’ for the wig lady at half-hour. We do the pin curls and she puts on my wig. I finish my makeup, do some itty-bitty vocalizing — just to make sure it’s all there — and then I have a dresser who comes by to help — make sure I’m wearing my watch and have my wedding ring, since those are both important to the plot.
"I’m rarely offstage in the show, so I set my cap for that. When the curtain comes down, we move in reverse: I give everything to my dresser, but I  re-do some things for her, like replacing my clothes that need to be on the deck for my quick changes. Then I get back down to my skin, clothes go to the laundry, and we’re ready to do another show.
"On a two-show day, I’ll keep some of my prep on — the pin curls, my makeup. I’ve fond this fabulous new makeup that doesn’t slide down your neck by 9 o’clock! 
"And I have a variety of hats, so I don’t look like one of those Broadway chorines sitting in a diner with her baseball cap on.”  

In the show, Hoty gets to sing about that kind of routine. There’s the title tune, of course. (All the songs in the musical, including the lyrics, are by Dolly Parton.) There’s a song for Violet’s introduction to Judy about office life. There are songs for each of the three women’s revenge fantasies against their boss. There’s a song when they realize that they’re confronted by the boss’s right-hand woman, a song when they triumph, and songs for when they rid themselves of useless men and start to realize their own potential.
Because 9 to 5 isn't just a chick show. It's chick-empowering show ... with music.

9 to 5: The Musical • Thurs, March 24, at 7:30 pm; Fri, March 25, at 8 pm; Sat, March 26, at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun, March 27, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm • $37-$70 • INB Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • bestofbroadwayspokane.com • (800) 325-SEAT

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Civic's *Spelling Bee* advances to national finals

The Civic's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
has won the Washington state community theater championship and is
going to the national finals in Rochester, N.Y., in late June.

Spelling Bee dominated at this weekend's Kaleidoscope theater
festival, winning seven of 12 awards in all and, most importantly, the
overall production award. Even better (from the Civic's point of
view), none of the other three states in Region IX of the American
Association of Community Theatre sent representatives -- which means
that, in effect, Spelling Bee gets to skip right past regionals and go
directly to the national competition.

ACT Richland (an auditioned group of high school students from the Tri
Cities) won the Excellence in Company Creativity award for its
production of Don Zolidis' !Artistic Inspiration, about two hack
writers trying to create a produceable and therefore awful play.

Bremerton Community Theatre won best set design and the Treasure Award
for Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

For its production of Doug Wright's creepy two-hander about a real
estate agent showing a wealthy but sinister man around a huge mansion
where recently some horrible things have happened, Wildwood Park, the
Richland Players won for best sound, best lighting and best direction.
Wildwood Park was also named the alternate production for advancing on
to Rochester.

Spokane Civic Theatre made the most of its home court advantage,
winning for best costumes (Jan Wanless), best choreography (Kathie
Doyle-Lipe), best design and production team, best ensemble, "Magic
Moment" (an adjudicator-selected award for most compelling episode
within a play, given to Lacey Bohnet for her lead singing in "The I
Love You Song") and Outstanding Performance (Mark Pleasant as Leaf
Coneybear, the hippie speller who goes into trances) -- along with the
all-important "Company Advancing to the National Festival" award.

Doyle-Lipe, who directed the show, reports that in the three months before the national competition, the Civic will probably schedule "a couple" of Spelling Bee performances -- both to keep the performers sharp and to serve as fundraisers. After all, it will probably cost in excess of $30,000 to  send two dozen people (cast, crew and band) to Rochester for a week.

Visit the Washington State Community Theatre Association blog for more
information. Visit "Stage Thrust" at Bloglander, too.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

*Almost, Maine* photos

by John Cariani
at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene, tonight through March 6

snuggled-in-the-cold couple: 
Troy Anast as Pete, Jordan Loe as Ginette (from the Prologue, Interlogue and Epilogue)

pillow-throwing couple:
Andy Leferink as Lendell, Liberty Harris as Gayle (from "Getting It Back," the fourth and final full scene in Act One)

"Things To Be Afraid Of" couple:
Janelle Frisque as Marvalyn, Aaron Baldwin as Steve (from Act 1, scene 3, "This Hurts")

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

*Nunsense* photos (and 2003 review)

Nunsense opens Friday night at the Civic and runs through March 6, but hurry and call 325-2507 or (800) 325-SEAT soon, because it's already nearly sold out.
Bobo will have a preview in the print Inlander on Thursday. 
In the meantime, how about a review that appears even before the production has opened? (Wait, that's what they're doing in New York with that Spider-Man musical.) Amuse yourself instead with a review, written by some hack, of the 2003 Nunsense at the Civic.
(Left to right in the top photos: Kathie Doyle-Lipe as Sister Mary Hubert, Patricia Brady as Sister Mary Amnesia, Jean Hardie as Sister Mary Regina, Jillian Wylie as Sister Mary Leo, and Abbey Crawford as Sister Robert Anne)

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Professor IS a Professor: Kahlil Joseph in *Legally Blonde*

Copied below — but in a nicer format over at the Bloglander — is a 2,000-word profile of Kahlil Joseph, who will be at downtown Spokane's INB Center playing Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde: The Musical through Sunday, Feb. 13.

First you hear the voice — resonant as mahogany, smooth as late-night FM radio. 
Kahlil Joseph is wrapped in his best winter clothes against the February chill, with scarf, coat and sunglasses almost obscuring the rest of him. And then you hear his voice, and then it makes sense: There’s a reason that this man who makes his living as an actor — who has done film and TV and voiceover work but is on his first national theatrical tour — has carved out a practice as a vocal and acting coach in L.A. (home to so many I-just-got-an-audition! actors). In fact, he has coached actors who have appeared in such productions as The L Word, Coyote Ugly and Clash of the Titans; he has even coached Sean Connery’s son, Jason. 

Joseph — who plays the intimidating Professor Callahan of Harvard Law School in the current touring version of Legally Blonde (a show that I’ve expressed some doubts about) inspires confidence with his no-nonsense but engaging manner. He’s passionate about his craft, and he expects reporters to follow suit.
“I expect them to know as much about me as I know about them,” he says, adding that 85 percent of journalists do their homework before interviews. The rest, he says, get uninspired monosyllabic answers.

The first leg of the current tour (Sept. 21-Dec. 18) was mostly one-night stops in a blur of Southern and Midwestern towns, Joseph says: “Four weeks straight — four weeks!,” he says, “of the show getting out at 10:30 pm and being back on the bus at 6:00, 6:30, maybe 7:30 am. We perfected the art of sleeping on the bus. We pull in around 2:00, sound check’s over around 5:00, call is an hour before the show — it’s just a blur. It’s fun to see new cities, new states — but it’s challenging physically, emotionally, mentally.
“Most of the cast is eating out most of the time. Some eat fairly well, with their protein shakes and all, but I really try to be disciplined by making the time to buy my own groceries.”
Meanwhile, the Legally Blonde tour’s second stint goes on, Dec. 28-May 15 (though mercifully, with a much higher proportion of entire weeks, or at least split weeks, in particular cities).
“Interestingly,” Joseph says, “I have reset my body clock on this tour. Usually, I’m a guy who goes to bed at a normal hour. But if you think of a typical worker who works 9 to 6, gets home 6:30 — they’re going to sleep around 11 o’clock, with several hours to unwind ... well, if you did that on a tour ... and even as it is, I’m often up until 1:00 or 2:00 am.
“But now, I can sleep on command. I can’t do a power-nap, but if I only get four hours’ sleep, I can make up for it. Psychologically, it’s tough.
“But you know, when I went home [to L.A.] on our layoff, I’d get to sleep at a regular hour.”

On the morning of his first full day in Spokane, Joseph didn’t have to get on a bus — but he did have to do the usual round of early-morning radio and TV spots, including a chat with Verne Windham on KPBX in which he recalled how he got interested in song and dance and martial arts, all when he was just 5 to 7 years old; how he once sang in rock bands in New Delhi; and how he hopes that taking a year off from his  work as an acting coach to do this tour will get him seen across the country, so that when viewers see him in film and TV, maybe they’ll remember him. (He has guested on TV series such as 24, Numb3rs, Leverage,Castle and Desperate Housewives; he did the requisite stint on a daytime soap, and he does a voiceover in Julia Roberts’s recent movie, Eat Pray Love.)

As for the movie-vs.-musical differences with Legally Blonde, Joseph admits that “film can be more subtle.” But with all the song and dance, he says, “a musical can be a more escapist and fun way of telling it.”
When Callahan comes on to Elle in the film, it’s just a hand placed on her thigh; in the musical, the harasser steals a kiss and then gets slapped — bigger gestures for bigger effects, or, as Joseph says, “the forcible kiss and the slap just pop so much better onstage.”

Actors on tour will tell you that they have a hard time uprooting their lives and staying for extended times away from their loved ones. Joseph swears by  technology now. “I didn’t even have a laptop before this tour,” he says. “But I am so thankful for technology now. Skype is my mantra.”
Always having to be on, while touring, is also difficult. “When you do a TV show or shoot a movie,” Joseph says, “you can fly back home. But this is constant.
“I’ve sort of done my career in reverse,” he says, listing his roles as Jean Valjean in Les Miz (in India), and as Zach in A Chorus Line, etc.
“But the interesting thing about choosing this role in this, as you call it, ‘bubble-gum musical,’ is the chance to make something of him.”

Him is Professor Callahan, the intimidating bad guy of the piece — and Joseph is clearly on a campaign to make something of the prof other than a mere stereotype.
“When my agent told me about this role, my first question was: “They made a musical? Of Legally Blonde?’ But she said to look at the character breakdown, and it seemed to fit. At the same time, I wanted to bring my own spirit to the role.”
He talks about giving the character more charisma and intensity — but of even greater primacy is the fact that Joseph, 32 and of East Indian ancestry, is distinct from all the elderly white men you might picture when you think of “established Harvard professor.”
He’s also someone who spent 2007-08 teaching voice and acting in UCLA’s School of Theater — “So that to any naysayers [who think Joseph can’t plausibly play a professor], I can say, “Well, sir, I am a professor.”

The song “Chip on My Shoulder,” sung to Elle by her newfound love interest, Emmett, is a testament to the need for motivation: To succeed, you need to get a little bit angry. Joseph thinks it also applies to his character: If Callahan is younger and darker-skinned than the Old White Men who supposedly make up the Harvard faculty, then he must have been “very fiery,” Joseph says. “It’s  like I’m out to prove myself.”
In the Spokane Public Radio interview with Windham, Joseph emphasized that Callahan “also has a chip on his shoulder. I’m the youngest actor to have played this role so far, and I want to make him compelling and charismatic, like he’s got that young fire — in effect, saying, “Look at me: I run a billion-dollar law firm. And look at you — you’re just getting started.”  At the law firm, Joseph explains, “I am God, and this is my show. And I don’t know who you are” ... although Callahan’s attitude toward Elle changes, “once he realizes that she isn’t as stupid as I thought.”

While he can’t think of any other stereotypes that this production breaks,  at least his Callahan is younger, “full of fire, drive, energy and charisma. The audience is going to take him very seriously.”
Joseph realizes that he’s playing the bad guy in what amounts to (my term, not his) a bubble-gum musical. What’s interesting is how hard he’s working to create a rounded characterization within the show. “The irony is that I like to play bad guys,” he says. “My Callahan is unlike all the other characters in the show. He’s not so happy-go-lucky. He has a lot of power and energy, but he is calculated, calm, still and guarded.”

Asked about how audiences for this musical vary by region, Joseph laughs and says, “When it comes to ‘Gay or European,’ they were screaming with laughter, even in the South. But it oscillates: When those two guys kiss each other [Nikos and Carlos, in “There! Right There!”], then there’s a kind of forced, quiet applause. 

After the kiss-and-slap when Callahan turns into a sexual harasser, Joseph says that most audiences begin to “utterly despise me. And the hatred that comes out when I get fired from the legal team — it’s vehement. People applaud. But if you’ve cheered when I get fired, no one is happier than me. If you boo me, it would make my day.”
He has studied film villains — De Niro, Pacino, Denzel Washington in Training Day — for clues on how best to portray the bad guy. But some of his best inspiration, he says, comes from an unusual source: pro wrestling. “When the crowd is shouting, ‘Kill him!,’ that’s when I imagine that I’m like what the wrestlers call ‘the heel.’ Some actors are terrified of their own negative emotions, but I do have a dark side — and I’m not scared of it, I just channel it into my work,” he says. “When I smile, that’s when I’m at my most dangerous.
“Bad guys think that what they’re doing is right — to the point of delusion. Look at Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds — guys like that are convinced that what they are doing is right, like in that opening speech of his when he compares Jews to rats.
“Callahan is like that. He has a God complex: ‘I am God.’ He’s very grounded, and he moves slowly. He can create a great amount of tension just by moving slowly.
“My first entrance comes in ‘Blood on the Water’ — I tell my students that they have to be like sharks: find their enemies and destroy them.”

Unlike most actors, Joseph likes to watch himself work. He can be self-critical, but he doesn’t like false modesty. He’s serious about his art, wants to see himself performing it, and doesn’t understand “fake humility. It’s very detrimental to an actor. You should appreciate yourself, so long as you know how to appreciate yourself to your advantage.” What he means is having the capacity to criticize yourself as well. “Some actors pretend that it’s abhorrent to see themselves on film: ‘Oh, no, that’s too much.’” But not wanting to see yourself work, Joseph says, is “equally as bad as someone who’s fawning all over himself. We’re all so concerned with appearances. I don’t like actors who act as if they want other people’s pity.”

He’s not looking for any pity in “Blood on the Water.” In Callahan’s entrance song a half-hour into the show — in which he demands that young law students start thinking like predatory sharks — Joseph’s short stature, plus the fact that listening from the wings dissipates the forcefulness of his voice, make him appear less than completely domineering. But the controlled movement he talked about is certainly evident — compared to all the bouncy bubble-gum girls in this show, he’s silent, self-assured, deliberate in his movements. 

This may be the 142nd performance of the Legally Blonde tour, but just before a second-act entrance, there’s Joseph, straight-backed in his suit, silently mouthing the words he’s about to speak onstage, even though he’s done this scene many times before. He waves a prop cell phone around, gesticulating, warming up. He’s older than the other cast members — the veteran, dignified, a stalwart among all the backstage silliness and play. When the orchestra strikes up the entr’acte, his head pops to attention: Soon it’ll be magic time.
And sure enough, soon he’s onstage, telling Elle and the other legal interns how to approach their next case. Caught up in what isn’t exactly the world’s most subtle musical, he’s still trying to mold a subtle characterization. In his professionalism and passion for his craft, Kahlil Joseph typifies many working actors today — easy to dismiss as just “that guy you saw that one time,” fleetingly, in a guest spot on TV, perhaps, but someone who has an interesting story to tell, loads of talent and intelligence, and an unsure but rising presence in this business we call show.

Image: Kahlil Joseph, backstage at Spokane’s INB Center on Feb. 11, 2011, during intermission for Legally Blonde: The Musical — he’s wearing a kind of smoking jacket to protect his Professor Callahan costume

Visit the theater blog at inlander.com.

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

*Spelling Bee* preview and review: links

Over at Bloglander, The Inlander's scrolling moshpit of various blogs, you can read Q&A interviews with two cast members from Spokane Civic Theatre's current production (through Feb. 20) of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Lance Babbitt as William Barfee and Maureen Kumakura as Rona Lisa Perretti.
And then — be warned! — a VERY LONG, blow-by-blow account of how opening night went.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

partial review of *Opus*

at Interplayers through Feb. 5

If a great artist stops loving other people, is he still a great artist? Do you have a worthwhile legacy if you created great art but everyone remembers you as an expletive?

Ultimately, Opus says no. But Michael Hollinger’s play about a classical quartet springs surprises along the way....

The play's four middle-aged guys (plus one female interloper) are like any bickering family of co-workers. They’re just trying to create good and beautiful things while putting up with one another’s absolutely infuriating flaws.

Flaws like the flighty, artsy, ineffable irritations of Dorian, the quartet’s violist (played here by Patrick Treadway). Dorian revels in music some days and is disgusted by it on others. With fingers fluttering near his forehead and a faraway look in his eye, Treadway delivers the opening scene’s paean to music’s beauty: “The whole thing rises,” he says, “floats together, falls back, arches upward, no one leading, no one following, it’s just … pulsating. Like it’s alive.” Cracking jokes about being off his meds, Treadway delivers all the facets of a man who sniffs and cuddles violins (he loves them so much) but who can, nevertheless, be such a pill sometimes.

As the group’s perfectionistic leader, John Oswald is fussy enough without needing to turn on the mad-scientist mannerisms. Yes, Elliott is high-strung, demanding and intense. But in a drama for five hands like this one — intimate, psychological, refined — the grimaces and grasping fingers seem too jarring. Yet in the hiring scene — allowing a new musician into what has been a closed circle of four egotists — Oswald also displays more than Elliott’s usual phony charm. It’s a rounded portrait, but with the darker corners etched too deeply....

The conclusion tips toward the melodramatic: Would the startling news really be delivered just before the big concert? And would the career-altering decision really be made immediately after it?

Opus, at least, is crammed with incidents — many of them comic, as we watch the bickering of a dysfunctional musical family. Director Jadd Davis could quicken some of the blackouts between those incidents, but it’s to his credit that the musical excerpts are performed realistically (and briefly) enough that we can easily imagine that we’re watching actual professional musicians....

Opus • Wed-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 2 pm and 7:30 pm, through Feb. 5 • $18-$22; $13-$16, matinees; $10-$12, students and teachers • Interplayers • 174 S. Howard St. • interplayers.com • 455-PLAY

(Full review in Thursday's Inlander, or at inlander.com. Photo by Young Kwak: Dave Rideout as Carl, Bethany Hart as Grace.)

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

*Opus* slide show

You can listen to director Jadd Davis as a dozen images slide by.  

Opus, by Michael Hollinger, opens tonight at Interplayers and runs through Feb. 5.

In a nice show of mutual support among local arts community members, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra has bought the house for an added performance of Opus — which is great for Symphony employees and their families, and terrifying for actors who have to mimic playing instruments in front of musicians who actually do so for a (partial) living.

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Interplayers announces 2011-12 season

Here are the questions that we hear most often about Interplayers: "Are they still open?" "Are they gonna make it?" "Is the board going to start doing some actual fundraising and marketing? And are they going to stop interfering with Reed [McColm, the artistic director]?"

Well, with David Mamet's Race replacing Cotton Patch Gospel this April, and with the slate of plays that McColm announced at last Thursday night's fundraiser, the folks at Interplayers are obviously planning on keeping the doors open. Better yet — despite pressures logistical, political and economic — McColm is going ahead with some adventurous programming.

[You can visit a version of this same post with photos and hyperlinks to reviews of several of the plays at The Inlander's Theater blog.]

First the new season, then some comments.

Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2011
The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin
directed by Troy Nickerson

Oct. 20-Nov. 5
The Receptionist, by Adam Bock

Nov. 23-Dec. 10, 2011
Sisters of Swing: The Story of the Andrews Sisters
By Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage

Jan. 19-Feb. 4, 2012
Tuna Does Vegas, by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard
Directed by Patrick Treadway
Starring Bill Marlowe and Michael Weaver

Feb. 23-March 10
Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck

March 29-April 14
An Infinite Ache, by David Schulner

May 3-19, 2012
Taking Steps, by Alan Ayckbourn


The Boys Next Door: A social worker jokes and suffers with the four mentally impaired men who live in a halfway house under his supervision. Nickerson, the Civic's resident director, is branching out to other theaters: He's directing Rent at Lake City next season along with this show at Interplayers. (Wasn't Troy involved with the 1994 production at the Civic?)

The Receptionist: The title character is just dealing with ringing phones and office gossip — until you find out just what kind of business her company is engaged in.

Sisters of Swing: LaVerne, Maxene and Patty were most famous for "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" and entertaining GI's overseas.

Tuna Does Vegas: This production of the fourth Tuna show reunites the director (currently playing Dorian in Opus at Interplayers) and the cast (the director of drama at SFCC and the former Actors Rep artistic director and Interplayers favorite) who have performed a couple of Tuna shows in Spokane before. The premise here is that Arles Struvie and Bertha Bumiller are driving to Vegas to renew their wedding vows — and everybody from the third-smallest town in Texas joins 'em.

Mauritius: A play about stamp collecting? Actually, it's not a snore, and not even primarily about stamps. Mom dies, leaving behind a rare and valuable collection (including one from the obscure title nation). One daughter wants to cash in, one doesn't — and then the rapacious con men move in, hoping to make a kill.

An Infinite Ache: Dating and the road not taken: What if, at the end of a so-so first date, you suddenly had a foretaste of all the happy and sad things that might happen to the two of you, if only you stayed together? Two twentysomethings see their potential lives flash in front of their eyes.

Taking Steps: A door-slamming farce, set in a three-story Victorian mansion — but with the gimmick, typical for Ayckbourn, that all three floors of the imaginary house are collapsed onto a single level. I still remember Michael Weaver in the 1994 production here, scampering "up" and "down" completely flat stairs (like a running back high-stepping through tires, the way they do in football drills). The idea with this "Interplayers Classics" slot is that the theater will revive, once each season, a hit from its past.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

*Of Mice and Men* review

Sitting cross-legged on the ground like a little boy, he rocks back and forth, self-comforting. With his lips trembling, he tugs on the legs of his filthy denim overalls. Fluttering fingers wipe nervous sweat off his forehead. When he’s worried — and he’s usually worried, because he doesn’t understand half of what people say — he jerks his head spasmodically and averts his eyes.
With his masterful characterization of a mentally impaired man, David Gigler’s performance as Lennie Small in Lake City’s *Of Mice and Men* sets the tone for a production of a script that exerts a primal pull on viewers’ emotions.

Sure, it’s been filmed three times, and you read it in high school. But Steinbeck’s morality tale of migrant workers during the Depression shouldn’t just be checked off as a been-there, done-that classic.
Steinbeck’s characters act generously, form unlikely friendships, envision a better future. Sometimes they’re cruel, of course, and nobody ever has any money. But when the kind-hearted ones have their little victories, we smile the way Lennie does when his traveling companion George tells him bedtime stories.

George Green has played his namesake before, and as with Gigler’s Lennie, it shows in his attention to detail. Portraying the father-figure for this big lunk of a man-child, Green catches both the tenderness and the resentment: He’s glad to care for Lennie but wishes he could stake out on his own. When he can’t supply any ketchup for Lennie’s canned beans, Green’s smiles are clouded with guilt. Later on, when it looks, momentarily, as if George might actually be able to purchase the little farm of their dreams, Green paces around and grimace-grins: He’s happy-anxious in the way people are when their desires crowd in too close.

In the opening scenes, director Dan Heggem lets the tension linger (in low-key lighting of his own design) while Green and Gigler complete their characters with well-observed gestures. But the deliberate pace doesn’t serve the second act’s flurry of incidents. And while Chris LeBlanc provides sage counsel as the foreman, several supporting actors lack conviction. At least the social-outcast theme is carried forward by Norm McBride, who bestows dignity on an old ranch hand, and David Casteal, who lends his resonant voice to a crippled, embittered laborer.
When it comes to tramps like George and Lennie, the world doesn’t care enough even to treat them unfairly — it just happens. After seeking a better future for themselves, they fail. But watching performances as good as Gigler’s and Green’s instills a little hope, at least, that somewhere, somebody like us deserves a little happiness.

*Of Mice and Men* • Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Jan. 30 • $17; $15, students and military; $13, seniors; $9, children • Lake City Playhouse • 1320 E. Garden Ave., Coeur d’Alene • lakecityplayhouse.org • (208) 667-1323

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*Don't Dress for Dinner* review

Hubby wants to shag his mistress, needs to get Wifey out of the house. Wifey discovers that a Cute Young Thing is coming over to cook dinner (suspicious, that). Then Wifey learns that her own lover — conveniently enough for our plot, he’s Hubby’s Best Pal — will also soon be arriving.
The name of the game in *Don’t Dress for Dinner,* then, is Mutual Deception: Wifey and Hubby are each trying to get some quick nookie before the other finds out.
But they don’t get much nookie. And what they do get isn’t quick in, er, coming.
But that’s in the nature of farce: frustrations, complications, recriminations, all in good fun.

Playwright Marc Camoletti’s character manipulation is almost algebraic: A matched with C is much naughtier than A matched with B, especially if D takes an interest in both B and C.
Once the cook goes through pretending to be not the cook but an actress, or else someone’s niece, or else somebody’s mistress — and just before she goes back, drunkenly, to being a cook again — playgoers are going to find their intellects disengaged, unhinged. When plots and counterplots are this convoluted, you can’t figure them out, at least not in the moment. So turn off your brain: You’re just along for the ride.
It’s like playtime for adults who may once have had a lascivious thought or two (which is to say, all of us).

As Bernard the Hubby — who’s always *thisclosetogettingcaught* — Scott Miller is particularly good at quicksilver changes from pretend-contentment to anguish: “Oh, good,” he smiles, brightly; “Oh, God,” he moans, miserably.
As Jacqueline the Wifey — sometimes scorned, so beware the hell of her fury — Leigh Sandness snakes an arm up a column, strikes poses and gets all raspy-voiced in indignation. But she doesn’t usually overdo it, which is important.
Comedy’s funniest when the actors play it seriously. For them, the stakes are high, and mugging for comedic effect just won’t do. It’s for those of us in the audience to giggle at what fools these lecherous mortals be.
So in the opening scene, when Hubby and Wifey are making their separate tryst-arrangements, what if there were less in the way of guilty grimaces and anxious finger-chewing? We’d still get the point, and the characters would seem less like cartoons.

In the meantime, someone (like director Thomas Heppler) needs to tell Shawna Nordman (as the cook) that mincing hands and continual eyeglass-adjustment convey anxiety, and that while mincing hands and continual eyeglass-adjustment may be funny the first three times, they stop making sense once the cook gains leverage on the men and a position of relative power.
Nordman still makes a delightful drunk, though, and she gets to wear one outfit — designed by Dee Finan and her team of costumers — that’s just about perfect for farce: Right before our eyes, it transforms from way too prudish to nearly too revealing to just-about-right sexy.

David Baker’s set design stuffs paintings and sculptures by local artists into the interior of an exposed-timber French farmhouse that’s nearly as eccentric as the characters running around inside it.
At its two-and-a-quarter-hour length (including intermission), *Don’t Dress* could use a trim: Nobody can keep laughing that long, and a comedy with so much extended and multiple role-playing requires a lot of time for explaining who’s playing which role now. And you know what they say about explaining jokes.
The finale of *Don’t Dress for Dinner,* though, is clear enough. The husband has been sleeping around, and the wife knows it; the wife has been sleeping around, and the husband knows it; and at play’s end, they come to an understanding that in the midst of all this philandering, their marriage will go on.
Sounds like spouse-swapping to me — which, in light of recent events at the Civic, is interesting. Funny how what’s titillating and giggly on stage is grounds for firing people off it.
But then farce, for all its artificiality, is like that: It acknowledges our sexual waywardness, then contains those desires within societal norms. Hubby and Wifey acknowledge their flaws, keep them private and reconcile. Maybe even comedies have something to teach us.

*Don’t Dress for Dinner* • Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Jan. 30 • $21; $19, seniors; $16, students; $8, student rush • The Civic • 1020 N. Howard St. • spokanecivictheatre.com • 325-2507 or (800) 325-SEAT

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Monday, November 29, 2010

*Honky Tonky Angels Holiday Spectacular* review

at Interplayers through Dec. 11

The scenic design for the Interplayers production of Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular repays careful attention.

Stage left is given over to a large bar backed by a mirror. Two wooden tap handles protrude above the bar, and two bar stools stand nearby. A Christmas stocking dangles from a nail in the bar’s wooden-plank facing — which consists of a row of horizontal beige boards, then a row of grayish boards arranged vertically, and finally a bottom row of two more horizontal beige boards.
Just below the mirror, 33 liquor bottles are displayed — some dark, some light, some tall, some squat.
The mirror is topped by a lacquered trophy fish sporting a Santa cap. Just above, the location is identified in large block letters — rather redundantly, I thought — as “HONKY TONK.”
On the mirror, numerous fingerprint smudges were visible. Also affixed to the glass were wads of play money (98 “dollar bills,” I counted).
Over the central doorway looms a deer head with 10-point antlers. Long strands of silver tinsel hang in the doorway.
The wall on the stage-right side of the central doorway features battered Washington license plates, including the numbers CEC 916, GKG 932 and even TE 8185.
A raised area, stage right, provided an alcove from which various sounds emanated. This area was enclosed in chicken wire, taut across a wooden frame with six upright pieces and garlanded with 27 orange Christmas lights. (One was burnt out.) A large sign above the alcove proclaimed, confusingly, “Don’t feed the band.”
The knee wall supporting the chicken-wire area was wallpapered with flattened cardboard liquor boxes: Visible were the insignias of Seagram’s VO, Tanqueray, Black Velvet and Popov.

A standup comedy routine (the “curtain speech”) was delivered before the show. It went on and on, could have stopped in a dozen places, and delayed the start of the play by 18 minutes, but I paid it no mind, as I found myself enraptured by every detail of this production’s setting.
Imagine my surprise and delight, for example, upon discovering that the onstage table nearest me used four wrought iron S-shapes to support its spindle leg with five, six — no, seven — turns, each having been crafted in a pleasing and symmetrical fashion.
For those of you scoring at home, I am informed that 36 songs were performed in 84 minutes of inaction, with the second act eventually called to a halt by the mercy rule.

Just as I was studying the disco ball (11 seconds for each twinkling revolution), a woman — I didn’t catch her name, or what she was singing about, or why she wanted me to dance with her — interrupted my reverie and coerced me into an onstage jig. Soon she was issuing a musical request, imploring Santa to, as she put it, “come down my chimney,” and urging him, in addition, “to bring my baby back ho-ho-ho-home.”
Oh, look, on the far side of the set — I hadn’t noticed this before — there are eight more license plates. Unusually, JU 5152 is a Montana plate.
The overhead lighting grid, I discovered upon investigation, deploys 53 lights, of which — as I determined during one musical number or another, I forget which — some 16 were illuminated (four of them blue, one partially blocked by a heating vent). There are many wires and cords, marvelous to behold, draped and coiled over the various metal bars of the lighting trellis above, and much may be learned by diligent study of them while other audience members are distracted by whatever it was they were looking at during the allotted performance time.
The Holiday Spectacular set was designed by a Mr. Scott Nicks, and I wish to extend my personal thanks to him for the diverting entertainment afforded to me by his bar stools, chicken wire and license plates during the 102 minutes in which I was compelled to look at them.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

*White Christmas* review

at Spokane Civic Theatre through Dec. 19

Winter Escape

PLAY REVIEW Dancing, singing and spectacle help White Christmas achieve escapism velocity. What about the parts that don't? MICHAEL BOWEN

Times are tough. You want the holidays to be festive. You want a little escapism.
White Christmas offers escape, all right: tap-dance storms and Fred-and-Ginger waltzing. A torch song that transforms into a lovely duet. The leading ladies parade around in a two-woman fashion show of one elegant '50s gown after another. Amid a multiplicity of well-designed sets, there's one scenic effect toward the end that will take your breath away. And yes, the title song moves from a cappella to singalong in warm, fuzzy, comforting ways.
The muscles and tendons of this production -- acting, dancing, singing, design elements -- then, are quite strong. The show's skeleton, however -- its plot, characterization and dialogue -- have a bad case of osteoporosis.
At one point, an angry outburst -- "That's nothing but a load of guff!" -- provides a good plot summary. Turns out White Christmas doesn't have much at all to do with Christmas: The famous song is just used as a framing device. It'a mostly let's-put-on-a-show sprinkled with the usual boy-gets-girl, loses-girl, gets-girl-again action.
"Oh, that's just old-fashioned escapism," people will say. What's wrong with that? Why not just enjoy it? And over the next several weekends, thousands will -- because this month-long show is already sold out.
Well, escapism doesn't work if half the time (nine out of 16 songs, not counting reprises), the corny-hokey-schmaltz factor has you eyeing your wristwatch instead of watching what's onstage.
The two numbers that are supposed to establish both halves of our love quartet as accomplished performers -- "Happy Holidays" and "Sisters" --come off as vaudeville-cutesy, with the boys in Santa costumes and the girls playing peekaboo with giant blue feathers.
Stereotypes abound -- all blondes are dumb, all men are demonstrably heterosexual, the stage manager (Eric Jeffords, channeling Tommy Tune) is so stressed out. Your eyes may start rolling. Take what Andrea Dawson has to go through, for example, in the Bing Crosby character's love-interest role. She and Kevin Partridge (in the Crosby role) have a whole series of spats, quarrels and tiffs. All night long, she's in and out and in and out and in and out of love. It gets to be annoying.
Still, Dawson does well with the resentful parts of the romantic comedy -- she misinterprets Bob's nervousness for arrogance, and no self-satisfied guy is going to put one over on her -- and in the second-act torch song, "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me."
Partridge is no Bing Crosby, but he's better looking and better at delivering dry witticisms. Partridge doesn't have The Voice, but then who does? And when he and his tuxedo step into the spotlight for "How Deep Is the Ocean," his love-longing answers her love-disappointment in the evening's vocal highlight.

Most of Act Two prior to that feels like variety-show filler. There's a cutesy "I'm in love" number, followed by a cutesy "we're not in love" number.
When the next song requires a couple to get along, they get along; if not, they don't. One of the worst offenders is "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," in which Betty and Judy are dejected over how men are so untrustworthy. Their lines sound almost tragic. So they decide to do a snappy little song-and-dance.
Then there's a drag number, with the boys imitating the girls in a version of "Sisters" reminiscent of the antics at your local Powder Puff football game.. And then the Shirley Temple character came out with shoulder shimmies in a case of adults compelling kids to act like adults, with all the attendant self-consciousness (on the part of the kid) and seat-squirming (on the part of the adults looking on).

Midway through the first act, though, came one of the best things about this show -- called, appropriately enough, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing."
The secondary couple have just fallen in love, you see, and things are bustin' out all over. Cameron Lewis and Siri Hafso proceed to provide us with a Fred-and-Ginger moment, with the choreography of director Troy Nickerson (assisted by Jillian Wylie and Kathie Doyle-Lipe) reaching its apogee.
Lewis, with mischievous smirk and raised eyebrows, somehow conveys cleverness and joy all at once: "Look at how good I am, and look at how I got this girl," his actions seem to say. With tiptoe pirouettes and flowing swirls, he's remarkably light on his feet.
Lewis and Hafso waltz and shimmy arms, clap hands and kick, throw in some boogie-woogie moves, move apart and back together, floating across the stage and into each other's arms. It's better than Dancing With the Stars because we've gotten to know Phil and Judy -- they're open and frank about their feelings, not as starched-collar as the main couple -- and because it's emotive dancing (look at how much I'm in love) as opposed to show-off dancing (look at my impressive technique). The two of them are all graceful lifts, curling arms and extended toes. Nickerson, maximizing the romance, adds a vocal quintet and moonlit setting that idealizes the lovers.
Now that's the kind of stuff I can escape into.

Design features are strong. With nine major settings spread across 17 scenes, set designer Peter Hardie ranges from a rustic barn to an elegant cocktail lounge. There's a backdrop featuring a country inn covered in moonlit snow that will take your breath away. (The treetops actually seem to, um, glisten.)
Jan Wanless and her costume crew also work wonders: Every time you look, the two leading women are wearing elegant suits and ballroom-dancing gowns.
The spangles on the some of the tap ensembles' brighly colored vests, however, encapsulate the entire show: Trying too hard to be cheery, they come off as lightweight and insubstantial.
As the old general (who led his battalion with crusty dignity and now runs the inn that's in a cash-flow pinch), Tony Caprile avoids excesses of sentimentality in a heartfelt speech of thanks to his troops (who are seated right where we are). As a tough old broad who runs the Vermont inn, Kathie Doyle-Lipe gets all throaty and pleading in a way that she knows is hilarious in a sexagenarian who wants to get back into show biz. "Put a light on me, I'm like a sunflower!" she squeals, longing for the limelight.

To summarize, then: White Christmas features beautiful sets, detailed and colorful costumes, and some exhilarating choreography.
The score features love duets, gimmick songs, a patriotic chorus, that torch song, a wonderful lullaby and two Christmas carols. An 11-piece band supports two dozen cast members, including the four triple-threat leads.
It's a lot of talent lavished on mediocre material, a lot of overproduced schmaltz with enforced pleasantness.
In his review of the Broadway production two years ago in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood got it right: If what you want is "old-school ... escapism" and" the prospect of singing the title tune along with a bright-beaming ... cast in festive sweaters," then White Christmas will please you. If not, it won't. And some of us aren't so big on festive sweaters.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

review of *The Cemetery Club*

at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Nov. 14

As a script, The Cemetery Club has some weaknesses. The three main characters are almost (not quite) reducible to types. It's not hard to predict one of the main plot developments, and you can just tell which debates will transpire and which characters will be on which side. The ending leans toward the maudlin.

After reading it, Bobo was expecting an episode the The Golden Girls, just focused more firmly on death (but with the character types and one-liner rimshots pretty much intact).

The fact that Cemetery Club reaches past that level is due to a couple of factors: the immediacy of live theater, and the talents of this production's three merry widows: Melody Deatherage, Mary Starkey and Susan Hardie. 

At one point, Tom Heppler (as the eligible widower who is the cynosure of every widow in Ivan Menchell's play) is making small talk in the living room of one of the widows. He gestures toward a pipe rack — anything to make small talk — and mutters something about how he didn't know that her deceased husband was a smoker. On the page, it's just a stage direction; but in Heppler and Deatherage's hands, it becomes a moment. The pipes are all that remain of Murray; both onstage characters, in their different ways, acknowledge the loss. A lot is left unspoken, and is all the more powerful for that — powerful, because the audience has to process the significance for themselves. A prop that we'd overlooked becomes the focus of grief, and Heppler, Deatherage, and director Heather McHenry-Kroetch — all three — handled the moment with subtlety.

Or the second scene: Each widow talking to her husband's gravestone. On the page, except for some cross-cut conversation, it seemed straightforward. But in live performance — Bobo's only stating the obvious here — you're in the same room as three grieving women, and the emotional impact multiplies. And yet another advantage: the three gravestones remain rooted just outside the realistic living-room set. Unlike the reading experience, when you watch the Club members in action, the sense of death and dying is never far away.

Hardie has the scene-stealing role — the flirty, embittered one — and she duly steals scenes ... but not without also finding the serious side of come-hither-and-let's-have-some-fun widow on the prowl. Some of Hardie's second-act revelations were just as impressive, in their way, as her earlier flouncing and flamboyance as some kind of Jewish Dolly Parton. She acts like she owns the joint; then, when the insecurities peep through, Hardie makes them convincing too. It's a powerful performance, unlike most of Hardie's other roles, and she becomes the center of attention (when appropriate) in most of what she does.

Starkey slits her eyes in disapproval throughout — but whereas it's in genuine disapproval early on, she finds the comedy in being a killjoy later on. And Deatherage does some of the most subtle acting of her local career with Ida's understated disappointments and small victories. Her reluctance at her husband's grave — clutching her purse, she'd like to move on with her life, but she's afraid of offending him (several years dead now) — is affecting. 

Some comic three-way bickering over their ages is nearly as quick and accomplished as a bit of Marx Brothers shtick. The cast is good at doing nervous pauses and making them seem real. 

It's the little things that make a staged conversation feel lived-in, and two examples would include the un-commented on business of sugar lumps in Lucille's tea and the matter-of-fact way that she flips (in a gossipy way) through another woman's mail: She's intrusive, and almost aware of how intrusive she is, and yet neither director nor actor are going to make any intrusive comments about it. 

There are lots of understated features of this show like that. These women happen to be Jewish; they could be Presbyterian, but they happen to be Jewish. No big deal. It's not their sole, defining characteristic. Stereotypes are hinted at, but not more. Heppler has an amazing moment when he expresses disbelief over the 40 years that passed between kneeling to propose and kneeling by his wife's grave. 

McHenry-Kroetch let a couple of scene-endings fall flat, lingering too long, and there are some fixable backs-to-the-audience moments, but generally her directing lets the actors create comfortably.

Menchell wrote a well-made play (the echo, in two different contexts, of "I'll see ya when I see ya" is emotionally effective), and Bobo wishes he could write something just as accomplished. At the same time, The Cemetery Club, while satisfying and funny and sad, never quite rises above the formulaic. It's a lot of widows — pro, con and in the middle on the issue of grieving and moving on — and you can always sense the playwright's hand at work (not just in the witty one-line jokes, but in the play's overall shape). Still, it's a mostly engaging evening, and a very well acted one.

(Bobo had more to say, but he's blathered on long enough, and it's taken him a week to produce this much, and besides, as usual, he can't read most of his notes anyway.)

*West Side Story* this weekend

The fundraiser in-concert version at the Civic is virtually sold out, but you can try 325-2507.
A recent NPR interview with Stephen Sondheim (about his new book, Finishing the Hat
reveals some of his criticisms of Oscar Hammerstein and comments on Arthur Laurents' made-up slang in WSS and what Sondheim really wanted the phrase "Krup you!" to be. (Like this is some big surprise.)

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*The Elephant Man* opens at Lake City

The Elephant Man of Victorian London was Joseph Merrick (though his caretaker, Dr. Treves, called him "John"). He suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome, which caused bone deformities, an unusually large skull, and warty growths scattered over his body.

The movie of 30 years ago tries to show you all that, literally. During the play, however, you're left to imagine those deformities for yourself.
Merrick used to end his letters with a poem about how he wished he'd been better made, but that a man's mind and soul are better measures of his value than his physical appearance.

The play about him by Bernard Pomerance, which won the Tony for Best Play in 1979, opens at Lake City Playhouse tonight. (Pomerance, now 70, lives in New Mexico.)

Directed by Marina Kalani. Lake City artistic director George Green plays Dr. Frederick Treves, the Victorian-era London physician who examines and cares for Merrick (Christopher Lamb). Bill Caisely plays the head of the hospital, Sean Cahill plays the freak-show manager who exploits Merrick, and Anne Lillian Mitchell plays the famous actress who becomes Merrick's first female friend. Seven other actors complete the cast of 12.

Opening tonight and running Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm and Sun at 2 pm. Top ticket price is $17. Call (208) 667-1323.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

review of *The 39 Steps*

at Interplayers through Oct. 30

It's funnier if you're funny without showing us that you know you're funny, you know?
The 39 Steps — a spoof of the veddy British 1935 spy-caper movie by Alfred Hitchcock, performed with just four actors with a lot of props and quick changes — certainly signals its comic intentions.
An innocent man gets himself ensnared in international intrigue, chased over loch and heather (he's in Scotland, you see) by policemen and double agents and a self-righteous woman who refuses to believe in his innocence. Of course, we never really think that our hero, the dapper Richard Hannay (Damon Mentzer) is going to succumb to the nefarious forces that encircle him — he has such an awfully dashing mustache, don't you know — but we're also not entirely sure how he's going to escape, either, especially with an uncooperative blonde handcuffed to him.
And it's a hoot. When the newsboy transforms into a Bobby with nightstick and then a traveling underwear salesman — all with switched hats and accents — it's delightful to watch in a clap-your-hands, jack-in-the-box surprise kind of way. When Jerry Sciarrio (in one of several dozen roles as Clown No. 1) transitions from a dignified lord of the manor to a goose-stepping, lunatic Nazi, the threat's rendered comic and harmless even as we giggle over the actor's venture into make-believe. Things happen fast, and we're invited to join in the fun: chairs become car seats, picture frames are held up to become escape hatches, audience members are invited onstage while the overworked actors rest for a while in front-row seats.

Michael Ward's set design rims the stage with bric-a-brac, and director William C. Marlowe has committed his show to a grab-a-prop-and-run operation.
Too often, the props get in the way. Oh, Marlowe loves his sight gags and sound gags — holds them and clutches them, crushes them in his arms, then ravages them and leaves them quivering, still barely alive, in the dust. In particular, the thunder-and-lightning gag that accompanies one of the play's key phrases became, with repetition, less amusing than annoying.
The action is set in the 1930s, with the Nazis threatening Europe. But when Marlowe camps up the proceedings with a disco ball or the Jeopardy theme, there's a sense that we're being condescended to — as if we couldn't enter into the comic spirit of a romp through pre-war British culture without a wink and a nod. It's funny — Hannay is faced with a serious dilemma, and that familiar quiz-show music comes over the speakers — but it's funny in terms other than the show itself is funny. And Patrick Barlow's frenzied four-actor adaptation — which refines two actors' reinterpretation of three movies' worth of revisions of the original novel — has plenty of laughs to offer all on its own, thank you very much indeed, sir.

In fact, the biggest laughs in Interplayers' production of The 39 Steps — and there are many bright spots in this show — land not because of all the wigs and props and furniture, but because of the acting. In particular, in the three-way role of femme fatale, innocent farmer's wife and skeptical love interest, Elisha Gunn is a revelation. With the opening scene's German woman of mystery, Gunn wrests multiple meanings out of single words: When she comes on to Hannay, she turns the final three syllables of "You wish to be — in-VOL-ved?" into a symphony of seduction, rubbing her thigh once up, once down, no more. She's a woman on a mission. She rolls the R's in "Richard" for so long that his name seems to tumble out the door and come back in again. For a melodramatic scene involving murder, she flops around like a stuck fish (and Marlowe hits upon an ingenious way of getting one character out from beneath a corpse). In the second act, when her third character is angry about being forced into proximity with Hannay, Gunn spits out a feigned agreement of "Yes, darling" with about six different kinds of irritability and rancor in it.
In a later sequence, as a dour Scottish farmer's wife, you might think Gunn is overdoing the skipping, barefoot ingenue bit until it pays off when she curls her toes around a chair leg, then extends them over to Hannay's side of the table for a flirty game of footsie — all while her Calvinist husband (Damon Abdallah, in one of his Clown No. 2 roles) intones a parody of saying a guilt-ridden grace, imploring our "unforgiving Father" to "beat our gluttonous thoughts and lash our lustful desires, as with a three-forked flailing stick, pressing our bestial noses to the grindstone...." Self-disdain like that is funny, especially when we see "lustful desires" going on under the dinner table.

But when you overload a show with stage business, verbal humor like that can get overshadowed. Hannay has a naive quality — slow to realize that he's been seduced or duped, easily distracted by trivia, rather vain about his appearance, willing to believe the best of others even when they're schemers — and Mentzer has pipe-clenched-in-teeth, grinning quality that lives just down the block from Dudley Do-right. His little witticisms and side comments sometimes get squashed by the insistence on scampering over to fetch the next prop.
The scene when Hannay is pushed into public speaking is an example of Marlowe's comic business over-burdening the text. The joke lies in Mentzer's character being caught in a pickle and understandably nervous about it; but a pop-up, roll-over bit of physical comedy detracts from the scene's focus (though it has to be admitted: Mentzer changes pace during the speech, improvising a rousing ovation that electrified the opening-night crowd).

Meanwhile, the two clowns generate a lot of verbal jokery. Abdallah gets comic mileage out of two different characters by making them, in different ways, almost completely unintelligible. Sciarrio's doddering hotel keeper and insane Aryan form hilarious contrasts. Abdallah can do both ends of a phone conversation; Sciarrio can imitate the ignition-cough of a '30s clunker starting up.
And this is the kind of show where the cues come in deliberately late: First you get the comic ineptitude, then you get a second joke out of the actors glaring at the sound booth. The 39 Steps proclaims its amateurishness for all to hear, though sometimes you just wish it would stop proclaiming and get on with the next chase scene and predicament.

All four actors have brilliant moments, and when they settle comfortably into the run, some of the timing issues (bobbled lines, cues that hit just a tad late) and diction problems (exaggerated German and Scottish accents aren't funny if they're completely indecipherable) will disappear.
Marlowe's 39 Steps is creative, inventive, rollicking. It just needs some editing: Sometimes, gags just need to be gagged.

(a shorter version of this review will appear on Oct. 21 in The Pacific Northwest Inlander)

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