February theatre response, part one

I fared much better in February with seeing a lot of theater, though I still missed Timepieces, What We’re Up Against, and many others. (As this is a longer post, I’m gong to break it up into three parts.) In order of when I attended:

The Callers at WET

I love Washington Ensemble Theatre. They consistently bring amazing new pieces to their tiny space and surprise, as well as inspire their audience. So, it was with high expectations that I attended The Callers. In general, I’m not a fan of musicals, however the subject of sex phone operators and telephone psychics seemed like much better fodder for a musical than cats, so I was hooked instantly by the raunch and ridiculousness of it. I thought the production was well-performed, choreographed, and directed. I was particularly moved by the voice of the lead actress. The strange and unanswered question of the intentions of the male lead was also compelling. There were some truly amazing staging moments with phone cords stretched across stage. And the acoustic music sequence of Beck’s “Loser” gave me chills.

That aside, the show lost me on one pivotal point – the powerful female lead decides to kill herself. Moreover they sang a song glorifying the decision. Why do powerful female leads need to kill themselves? I have a problem with Hedda Gabler for the same reason, but at least with Hedda there’s the excuse that the time period dictates she has no other option. This woman, on the other hand, is a powerhouse who is grieving, sure, but is not so weak as to actually be a sucker for some hokey B.S. about being happier with her love in the afterlife. So, if that’s the ending you’re writing to, please build to it with evidence of that being her only choice instead of building the relationship with the questionably creepy male lead to show that she has an, albeit sketchy, option.

Why this play now? I’m ready, indeed I think the world is ready, for a higher standard of musical theatre. Grief is a common theme, but The Callers attempted to add raunch, sketch, and catchy tunes to the mix, which elevated it to a different and completely unexpected level. Ultimately, I’d be excited to see it in two years to see how much it changes.

How to Read a New Book of the Bible at Seattle Rep

The story was quite simple: a man processing the death of his mother and by extension his relationships with the whole family. The first act was wonderful mostly because there was slightly more focus on the brother who was dealing with PTSD from Vietnam. This to me was one of the most compelling parts of the piece and to my recollection, it never really came up again after act one. In fact the brother pretty much stopped developing after act one and was barely seen in act two. And here is where I’ll mention what I feel like I heard from everyone about this show: yes, it was sad.

I’ll admit it. I cried. Once. Then did not cry again because the play seemed to be deliberately trying to make me cry, and that’s cheap. Don’t force me to feel something through manipulation. Tell me a good story and make me feel something because your characters are telling me the story and I feel for them. Instead, they said sappy thing after sappy thing that all mothers, or fathers, or brothers say in an attempt to force every moment into tear-jerking anarchy. Cease and desist. I don’t like to feel like a puppet. Don’t treat me like one. Tell me the story. And that’s where the play faltered for me. It lost its character-driven story after act one’s truly amazing visit to the Vietnam Memorial.

Additionally, in act two every time they said the mother was dead, she would start talking again to the point that every time she had her “last hurrah,” she’d actually have one more scene. But rather than making a larger point about lingering death, it felt like manipulation. This whole sequence even started out with the narrator saying that he didn’t want to draw out her death. He wanted to keep it simple, so he said she died and she was going to leave stage. But then she had several more dying scenes and pre-dying scenes. And then there was a scene in heaven with the mother and father that felt really out-of-place with the rest of the show. Writing a play about death is really hard. I get that. It’s especially hard if it’s your mom or dad, but please focus on the story. Abstract the reality if you have to so you can focus on the story. Don’t abandon it for the easy tug of the heart string.

The set was gorgeous. The design work (and for that matter the acting and directing) at Seattle Rep is always phenomenal and it did not disappoint for this production. But sadly, at most Seattle Rep shows, I always feel like the play itself can’t possibly live up to the promise the design, acting, and directing makes. I want Seattle Rep to pick amazing pieces as well as have talented artists. To pick plays without spine is only a disservice to the artists involved, and to the audience paying for a high-priced ticket.

Why this play now? Grief is a subject we will never overcome (until we all start cloning ourselves and have clone farms like in Clonus). However, I like my grief with a little less saccharin and a lot more punch. (See The Callers)

Cocktails at the Center of the Earth at Annex

Why have I lived in Seattle in three years and never been to Annex show until Cocktails? Cocktails was a lot of fun. The repeatable story, the music, the nod to steampunk, cyborgs, and a talking fox should have spelled win. But, as with many delightful theatre productions, it was just that – delightful but ultimately empty calories. I will say that I particularly enjoyed the song about Sappho, and the incorporation of many different settings (air, sea, earth’s core). I also enjoyed the robot character and the anarchists, but the comment on high-society was sort of lost as the plot never moved forward; only the setting changed.

Why this play now? More companies should try to attach sci-fi-ish themes into theatre and the nugget of the play commenting on a rich society-set always searching for a cocktail is a worthwhile endeavor. It just needs more exploration. The humor was there; higher stakes is all it needed.

Continued in part two with White Hot, The Bells, and El Pasado es un animal grotesco

My calendar for March is getting full. Seventeen shows (including readings) this month. If you have recommendations, send them along.

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