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CSpoke is writing the most-despised play of 2012.
Mar 19, 2012 CSpoke commented on Real Girls Wear Pink.
There's one glaring point that doesn't show up in this review, and I wonder if it was mentioned in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter": Virtually all of this harmful gender indoctrination is committed by grown women, not men.

It is the Mom (not Dad) who tells her son, "She doesn't want a toy truck for her birthday, get her another Sparkle Barbie." It is the Aunt (not the Uncle) who announces, on behalf of her niece, "We don't want to watch some dorky science show, we want to watch American Idol." It will be Grandma (not Grandpa) who barks, "Leave that girl alone, she doesn't want to help you rotate the tires."

Until feminists and well-intentioned authors admit this basic fact of gender psychology, nothing will change.
Sep 14, 2011 CSpoke reviewed Erickson Theater Off Broadway.
If “Inherit the Wind” sounds like a retread of old news, the Strawberry Theatre Workshop production should change your mind. It’s more than just a courtroom drama, more than a clash of outsized personalities, and certainly more than a “debate” between evolutionary science and Biblical creationism. Quite unlike the film of 1960 that you may dimly remember, this show emphasizes the underlying issues of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom from the tyranny of the stupid. I highly recommend it.

It’s unfortunate that the word “debate” still needs sarcasm quotes to emphasize the phoniness of the contest that motivates the story. Anyone who still entertains the insufferable notion that there can be some sort of compromise between myth and science must not know about the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial of 2005, which made it essentially impossible for the hillbilly states to entertain the fantasy of “both sides of the argument” in textbooks. This play yanks us back to 1925, and when the prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, is cross examined on the unscientific absurdity of the bible, it now sounds more like pure comedy than intellectual gamesmanship.

This play’s real value is in the unexpected, such as the complex layering of Brady’s tone and character. The real William Jennings Bryan, on whom Brady is based, fought hard for women’s suffrage and against American imperialism. He hated big banks and was, at least superficially, a populist. Todd Jefferson Moore does a fine job of displaying this humanity, without overplaying the man’s phenomenal ignorance regarding science. When he proclaims “I’m more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks” his pride already sounds more wounded than bombastic. It’s a perfect foreshadowing of an exit that is somehow simultaneously ignominious and endearing.

Reginald Andre Jackson’s performance as Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) is also a fresh breath of oxygen. He carefully modulates those places where Drummond’s frustration veers towards bullying, and his fervor always seems to encompass a larger world, not just the confines of the courtroom. The case itself evolves before our eyes and ears, the specifics gradually becoming less important than the underlying grand theme of scholastic honesty. Drummond’s sincerity and love of intellectual freedom somehow magically avoids obvious polemics, and that by itself is worth the price of admission. And the director, Greg Carter, has wisely amputated a bit of stage business at the very end, where the agnostic Drummond places a bible and “Origins of Species” side by side in his brief case. That could easily have wiped out all that the two principle actors had built.

My one big gripe with the show is in the performance of Nick Garrison as the cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck (a stand in for H. L. Menken). His snarky line readings ranged from gay to gayer to gayest. This made absolutely no dramatic sense given the 1925 time frame, and was utterly unfaithful to the determinedly heterosexual life of the real Menken. It was an especially weird intrusion given that the original script has been augmented with several choice Menken quotes, shortening the distance between fact and fiction. Now, if Garrison is gay offstage I don’t really care. But when an actor is playing a heterosexual character on stage his right to be gay evaporates. Using a non-gay role as an excuse for sexual self-expression or fulfillment is unfair to both play and audience. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a play almost derailed by this kind of irrelevant grandstanding, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last. Actors, please head this advice: A stage is not a float in a gay pride parade.
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Feb 17, 2011 CSpoke reviewed Intiman Theatre.
The Stranger's comment feature really needs a 6th star, because the Seattle Shakespeare Company production of "The Threepenny Opera" is pitch perfect. I've never watched a three hour entertainment where the time seemed to pass so quickly, as every one of its two dozen or so scenes was crisp and engaging. Each character is drawn with keen detail and color, not a weak link anywhere in a very complex web of rogues, loose ladies and morally flexible lawmen.

Except for an ingenious framing device added to the beginning (and reprised briefly at the end, which I won't give away here) this production is authentic throughout. Each costume is unique to each character, so that when actors doubled (or tripled, or quadrupled) roles every part was memorable. They also did some clever gender switching; the actors played it perfectly squarely, never vamping for effect, and this added another layer of depth to the sexual landscape.

The mobile fragments of scenery were terrific. They were precisely scaled to the material, giving it both an epic quality and sense of street theater. Sometimes it can seem intrusive or clumsy when actors wheel around their own scenery, but in this show it creates an ironic aura. These people are trapped in a horrible world that they didn’t create, yet here they are creating it moment by moment.

As to the music, a few minutes in I thought, 'too bad, no banjo, no trumpet.' But the solo piano player handled every note of Weill's music well enough to deserve his own soundtrack CD. (SSC, put some of this online!)

I can't quite believe that what I just saw was a preview performance. They've done in one night what Broadway can't seem to do in three months! God, I’m glad I live in Seattle. I’ve wanted to see this classic, done right, for years and now here it is.

Make plans right away to go see this. I mean, like, now. Click over there and buy your tickets. If you don't you will be seriously bummed when it starts selling out in a few days.
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Nov 17, 2010 CSpoke commented on He, Himself, and Him.
Excellent review and analysis. Every twenty-six-year-old should go see the Rep's "Three Tall Women."
Nov 13, 2010 CSpoke commented on Morning Glory: You're Too Good for This Shit.
IBS is a sly reference to the International Brecht Society. If you think about it, "Morning Glory" is really just an adaptation of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." Only it's about a TV show instead of a farm collective. With a few laughs throw in. And Ford and Keaton instead of goats.
Oct 30, 2010 CSpoke reviewed Annex Theatre.
Streamlined since last weekend, “Money Changes Everything” is now a tighter show, and much more enjoyable. There is a real sense of inertia in the first act as the plotters of the poorly conceived Loomis Fargo “Hillbilly Heist” of 1997 go into overdrive to break the speed limit on bad planning. There is a fairly complex collision of personalities in Rachel Atkins’ script, and aspects that were somewhat hidden by clunkiness are now easier to appreciate.

The logic (if you could call it that) of Mitch Dewitt, the career criminal who makes everyone’s dreams a reality, particularly benefits. He is portrayed by Laurence Hughes with what seems to be autobiographical fluency, planning things (barely) with the same ease that he would put into stealing drugs from a Walgreens. His heedless can-do American spirit comes with a slouchy southern accent, but that spirit is essentially identical to the Wall Street criminality that produced the current recession. There is a coolly corporate efficiency in his willingness to hurt people in order to get the job done the right way, his way.

However, it is still Lisa Branham and Devin Rodger who provide the moments of deepest emotional transparency. They understand – much sooner than any of the guys – just how badly things are going to turn out.

Although the second act still suffers from unnecessary character asides (in the form of television interviews) it has gained a superior performance by Brandon Ryan. Kevin (the initiating schmuck) has moments of frustration and rage that are now more carefully modulated, grounded in a real human instead of a cartoon. His growing sense of fear in the second act is palpable.

So go see it! I have a feeling that “Money Changes Everything” will have a life far beyond Seattle, and you’ll be able to say that you saw it here first.
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Oct 28, 2010 CSpoke commented on More Guts, Please.
ACT performed "Lieutenant" as vaudeville, as an entertainment unto itself, without any regard for the underlying tragedy: a horrible civil war. Portraying the Troubles as a yuck-fest was borderline offensive. The satire in McDonagh's text was completely disrespected.

In a commentary attached to the Stranger's ACT page I discuss the problem of less-than-convincing stage gore, a variation of the Uncanny Valley problem in CGI. This is a big problem and it's getting worse. Too many stage directors are undermining the theatrical experience by misusing their bag of tricks.
Oct 24, 2010 CSpoke reviewed Annex Theatre.
Somewhere inside Rachel Atkins’ “Money Changes Everything” there is either a pretty good stage play or a nice fat check for the option on a screenplay. Good luck on the option, but for now the focus should be on paring down an overlong, unwieldy script that’s trying way too hard to look like a fast-paced movie while largely neglecting the insightful patience of the stage.

I can give MCE a modest recommendation because of its inherently fascinating story, and, oddly enough, the fact that the production tries so hard to tell it in such a laboriously wrong-headed way. I’ve never seen a play with so many problems that was so much fun to watch.

The first half hour of the first act promises something out of the ordinary, a bank robbery story that centers on the criminals’ motivations instead of the mechanics of the job (the notorious Loomis Fargo “hillbilly heist” of 1997 in Charlotte, North Carolina). The two central plotters, Lou and Kevin, touchingly evoke the helplessness of people already imprisoned by lower class desperation. The phrase “eight dollars an hour” has never been more dismal. It’s heartbreaking to see the two almost instantly hand complete control of the scheme to a career criminal (Laurence Hughes as the loathsome Dewitt) who will confidently propel them to certain failure.

It’s also heartbreaking to listen to overblown Southern accents that are bad enough to make you hear the twanging of a jaw harp. (Yes, ma’am, I’m talking to you, Candy.) Director Dan Morris should rein in about half of the hillbilly hysterics.

Most of the early emotional inertia is quashed by a determination to explain every detail of the crime and its aftermath. Over the remaining two hours (the first act is a whopping 90 minutes, the second 60) there are many single-character asides framed as appearances on a “20/20”-type show called “Frontedge.” These post-prison interviews don’t contribute much beyond, “I sure wish I’d done things differently.” There are many disconnected scenes that could be coherently compressed into longer ones such that emotions could simmer instead of constantly boil over.

Brandon Ryan starts off well as Kevin, the Loomis Fargo inside man, showing the violence of thought that can lurk within a seemingly bland anonymity. But the shortness of the scenes force his character to set loose madness far too soon and far too often. Ryan sustains a fever pitch of flailing frustration that quickly becomes tiresome. Fortunately, in the very last scene Ryan somehow pulls a rabbit out of a hat and shows us a crippled soul who seems to be proud that he has so clumsily engineered his own doom.

Lisa Branham is the true standout as Lou, the scheming mastermind. She’s just clever enough to seduce one man, just dumb enough to let herself be controlled by another. Branham is always in complete control of the play’s most complex character, shifting quickly from self-pity to amorality. In her best scenes she embodies cruelty and fear simultaneously, quite a feat and a joy to watch. If Atkins had made Lou the true spine of the story Branham would have had the part that her talents deserved.

Many scenes involving two FBI agents could stand to be removed altogether. They only exist to remind us that a crime of legendary scale is being committed, but their many brief, overly similar chats continually deflate the tension. It’s more fun to hear about the overwhelming windfall from the yokels themselves, along with their mediocre vision of how to spend it: minivans, breast implants and jet skis. It’s also damaging that the demeanors of the FBI agents are wildly unrealistic. Nobody graduates from Quantico with a Boss Hogg bellow or a bebop beard.

The only essential FBI scenes involved Devin Rodger as Becky, Kevin’s hapless wife. Rodger is a real standout (also portraying two other minor characters), investing her short appearances as Becky with stunning emotional clarity in an otherwise underwritten part. I wanted to see a lot more of both the character and the actor.

A motion picture can produce flashbacks, flash forwards and multiple threads of parallel action with a snip of the scissors or click of the mouse. Watching stage actors attempt these effects by lugging their own furniture and props on and off the Annex stage – at least twenty times, I lost count – became grindingly tedious. A majority of scenes seemed to be in the two to three minute range, supplying bits of plot in dribs and drabs but with little emotional build up or consequence. The Annex stage is large enough for the FBI desk and that damned couch to remain onstage most of the time, and this alone would eliminate a few blackouts.

My hope is that the director will conspire with the author to edit and speed up this story considerably. A much better play is lurking in there, just like a big block of fifties inside a Loomis Fargo vault.
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Oct 19, 2010 CSpoke reviewed ACT Theatre.
Two or three years from now a cast of teenagers at ArtsWest or the Bathhouse will do “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” with one fiftieth of ACT’s budget, and it will be twice as good.

Without the distractions of money, time and professional expertise necessary to create blood and gore with first class verisimilitude, they will employ simpler tricks of stagecraft. Instead of a three-thousand dollar winch they’ll use a block and tackle. Instead of computer coordinated pneumatic blood sprayers they will use red spot lights. Instead of latex dummies they’ll use scarecrows with tree branches for arms and legs.

The author himself, Martin McDonagh, fully endorses the use of “realistic” effects for this play. This decision has been quite lucrative for him. Unfortunately, if the effects are less than perfect this creates a serious problem which is akin to the CGI dilemma called the Uncanny Valley. ACT’s blood spatters and prosthetics come close to horror movie equivalents, but not quite. At best these effects create a momentary “ee-ewh!” response, but cannot sustain chills as reliably as even a 1950’s Hammer Film. Without the slight of hand of quick edits we are denied the visceral involvement of cinema, so we have to coax our goose bumps into shape by lying to ourselves: “This is trying to be scary/cool, so I guess it kind of is.” And so we gasp and laugh. I suppose we do this because we don’t want to disappoint the cast and everyone else who worked so hard to gross us out.

However, at the same time that you are generously attempting to grant a bit more reality to the stage tricks, there is another force pulling your head in the other direction. Even if you have never read a paragraph on the subject of dramatic theory you know that it is your job to watch a play from the outside, with some degree of objectivity, never forgetting that you are watching a play. Instead of merely crying for the widow or rooting for the detective you should be compelled – from time to time, at least – to assess what you see. If the playwright is at all competent you will find more depth and more enjoyment in discovering the invisible currents propelling the action. This is especially necessary if the surface action is the mayhem of a bloody farce.

“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” isn’t supposed to be about its own alacrity in the art of gross-out laughs. It’s about a civil war.

Thus this production slaps us with a dilemma that is fatal to a fulfilling experience. You can’t be pulled into “Lieutenant” such that you can imagine yourself one of its deranged participants; and you can’t remain an outside assessor, where the contrast of cruel humor to cruel history might load your brain with a satisfactory case of cognitive dissonance. As a result the production requires absolutely nothing of you. All you can do is bide your time waiting for the next pseudo-shock or hyper-ironic one-liner.

I believe that McDonagh wants us to truly feel the absurdity of a society based on escalating retribution. All those gruesome laughs are built upon years of pain and scar tissue, and the author wants us to grasp the sad madness that could easily have altered his own life path had his parents not moved from Ireland to England.

This might have been realized in the Falls Theatre had the production decided to deliver its irony as darkly and straight-facedly as possible, insisting that the laughs exist entirely beyond the stage apron. Instead they placed every joke in quotation marks, mugging their way through a somewhat better than average Halloween haunted house. They have tried to class this up by calling it Grand Guignol, but it’s really just vaudeville.

The Troubles were not vaudeville.
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Oct 14, 2010 CSpoke commented on God of Garbage.
A play doesn’t have to be in the “epically great” category for a production to be loads of fun, so long as the team is inventive, and this is the case with “God of Carnage” at Seattle Rep. What could have been a stale, talky bitch-fest instead pops with energy and ingenuity. It’s an anarchic calamity of the first order, where the adult capacities of forethought, self-censorship and passivity are transmogrified into instantaneous rebuttal, rage, and hurt feelings.

The scenario is simple enough: Two boys have had a tooth-cracking playground melee, and the parents have come together to sort things out. Things are bound to go south, and they do, with psychic bloodshed that is much worse than the physical.

Much of the energy comes from director Wilson Milam’s fluid and endless rearrangement of personnel as they debate degrees of guilt and innocence, first in regard to their boys, then in regard to one another. The spectacularly three-dimensional, Meier-esque set by Eugene Lee allows for plenty of dynamic movement as the actors distance themselves from one another, eavesdrop, or selectively ignore somebody. (It’s also much more interesting than the set of the recent Broadway run.)

The director’s dictum seems to have been that dialogue should always be treated as a pair of magnets, with the battlers either snapping together or lunging apart. And if anybody stays in one place for long they’d better have a damn good reason. To cry, for instance, which Amy Thone does twice to great effect, once with a broadly comic edge and once again to show just how ugly things have gotten. The button-pushing and bloodletting between Thone and her stage husband (Hans Altwies, quite often literally red with anger) is so acute that you can’t help wonder if she’s suffered similar cock fights with her real husband (who also happens to be Hans Altwies). This adds a wonderful squirm factor to the proceedings.

Denis Arndt and Bhama Roget do battle with clipped silences that indicate an entirely different balance of power. Their generational age difference, not specified in the text, adds another dimension to the sexual gamesmanship. Geographic alterations to the text, placing the action in Seattle instead of Paris, are also a lot of fun.

A year and a half ago Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times said that “on the page the play doesn’t amount to much.” This is this is exact impression I had in reading it. The play is essentially an exercise in shifting alliances and instantly re-ordered priorities. Absent the ideological rules of formal politics the warring couples are free to do the forbidden: change one’s mind about leaving something unsaid. This they do, about every five minutes. Perhaps Reza meant this as a parody of French intellectual café tradition, where the use of language itself fuels perpetual reevaluation and self-contradiction. Apparently a laugh-free delivery was enough to entertain the French and the Germans. Without the comic energy of this production it would not be a bad play, simply a very different one, a play that takes its ideas perhaps just a bit too seriously.

Reza has expressed more than a little displeasure in the fact that British and American audiences have laughed their asses off, as though we have ignored her intentions. This is unfortunate, because all the humor seems perfectly organic to the script. Thank god the Rep has actors who understand this, and are able to launch this “discourse” into a fully fledged rhubarb without ever mugging for laughs. A single extraordinary stage effect (which I hope you haven’t already read about) is the only – probably unnecessary – pratfall.

It has been widely speculated that Reza’s English translator, Christopher Hampton, is entirely responsible for making GOC funny, or even interesting. I believe that cooler heads should prevail, and give Reza 99% of the authorial credit for the end result. It is a testament to her skill that she has created a work that is, simply put, translatable and adaptable across cultures and oceans. The underlying schematic of warfare and dissolution is entirely her own. I think if she came to the Bagley Wright she just might be able to fully enjoy what she has accomplished.
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