iDiOM Theatre presents Clown Bar

I had a romping and hilarious good time seeing the iDiOM Theatre’s production of Clown Bar with my Husband and parents. This was my first time at the iDiOM Theatre, a tiny, intimate place with just three rows of seats in my section, which allows or necessitates that the players use the audience as part of their stage: awesome.

photo from the Herald

photo from the Herald: click to enlarge

Clown Bar is a work of clown noir, in which a man named Happy – who retired from the funny business to go straight and become a cop – is forced to go back down into the seedy clown underworld to search for his brother’s killer. The play takes place in Clown Bar, a business run by the sinister BoBo. Other literally colorful characters include Petunia (who sidelines as a sex worker), Shotgun (whose name references two meanings of the word), helpful Twinkles, straight-faced Giggles, the terrifying Popo, and of course the unforgettable Blinky Fatale. Also the unfortunately unfunny character Timmy (actually very funny as played), the murdered brother, who we meet in flashback scenes. This is not a play for the whole family: drugs, violence, sexual content including a thoroughly effective burlesque scene (wow!) make for adult entertainment, thank you very much.

I thought this was wonderful stuff. The story is engaging, and I love how it was played: the characters mostly face the audience, making eye contact and interacting with us in lively fashion even as they address one another. They really used the intimate setting. The clown frame was explored not just in fun costumes – although absolutely those – but with mannerisms and theme music. (The music was central, and because this is a small town, we recognized our electrician’s assistant playing the bass.) I jumped off my seat a few times in alarm during this dark and murderous show; but more often I laughed out loud at the antics. Husband and I discussed our favorite characters: I listed pretty much all of them, though, so that is unhelpful.

I commented to Grammy just the other week, when we saw In Your Arms in San Diego, that living in a smaller town means seeing events that are often less polished, less professional Broadway-level work than you see in Houston (or San Diego). And I confess that it was impressive to see In Your Arms, one of those top-level professionally produced plays. But the fact is I really enjoy community-level theatre a great deal, too. Even without the tiny theatre that lets you actually touch the actors, it feels more intimate to see your talented neighbors engaged in a passion that is so entertaining to watch. And I want to be clear: this was not messy amateur work; this was absolutely talented acting, in every role in this play. The fact that it was born closer to home just made it all the more enjoyable to me.

iDiOM Theatre has got the goods. I’ll be back. And Clown Bar is worth the time if you can track it down.

Rating: 8 mixed drinks.

The Old Globe presents In Your Arms

I was so lucky last week to get to accompany my Grammy to this outstanding theatre production, which is a little hard to describe, but of course I’ll try.

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar's Powerhouse Theater

photo by Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater

In Your Arms is a dance-musical production with very little dialog. It is a series of shorts, mostly unconnected, but with a theme of romantic relationships. These vignettes range through time and geography, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, as with “The Lover’s Jacket,” in which dates and locations (Spain in 1939 and Argentina in, I’m pretty sure, 1940) are projected against the wall. This is one of the finest and most communicative pieces of nonverbal storytelling throughout the whole, although all of them were impressively clear in their messages and emotions despite being mostly wordless. Details might be blurred, of course, but the feeling and action of each piece was perfectly plain.

The exception was Carrie Fisher’s contribution, “Lowdown Messy Shame,” which is voice-overed by Fisher as she is seated off to one side at a typewriter, composing the action we see played out across the stage. The players act out Fisher’s imaginings but also comment upon them, in a cute innovation. One review found this one overly wordy – and indeed it was almost the only spoken theatre of the evening – but I enjoyed it as much as any other, despite its differences. (“The Dance Contest” also uses some voiceover.)

As I said, these shorts had a shared theme, but remained distinct. I loved the survey over time, space and culture. And then they are tied together by opening and closing pieces featuring a singer expressing nostalgia for loves past. Here I agree with the Union-Tribune (link above) that less song would have been fine; but I think these scenes served well nonetheless to emphasize the loose links between all the pieces. Overall, this nearly-wordless hour-and-forty-five-minutes of music, dance and theatre was profoundly emotional and moving, over a wide range of topics but centered around affairs of the heart. I was deeply impressed; it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time.

I was further pleased by stage settings and costume. No set stands out in my memory as being particularly complex or elaborate, but each was distinct and evocative, and the transitions were smooth and easy; I love seeing a change of just one or two elements transform a stage and introduce a new setting with perfect clarity. I think that kind of subtle-but-clear set design is more impressive than elaborately complete stage dressings. A unique element here, too, was the use of shadow and projection throughout; the time-and-place cues in “The Lover’s Jacket” were projected on the screen, and shadows were a major feature in “A Wedding Dance,” while projected home movies were central to “Life Long Love.” The costumes were great fun, too, and well designed for showcasing the dance as well as helping to tell the story. I liked the protagonist’s costume in “Life Long Love” for what it emphasized and revealed, while also looking demure at the appropriate moments.

I do want to say briefly that I wasn’t sure about the racial tones in “A Wedding Dance”, which tells the story of an African couple’s immigration or… kidnapping? I don’t have enough information to be certain whether this was a well-told realistic story, or an ugly appropriation of stereotypes. Likewise “White Snake,” which tells the story of a white businessman who reads comic books and fantasizes about his Asian assistant. It was a great piece of theatre and movement, combining dance and martial arts and a lovely representation of the blurry line between fantasy and reality. But I wasn’t sure how much fun we should be having with certain stereotypes there, as well. I haven’t worked out what’s okay here, in part because of the lack of details in wordless theatre. Just something I wanted to note. On the other hand, the same-sex couple in “Artists and Models, 1929” was represented with sensitivity and realism and I found them delightful. I want to say that this was one of my favorite pieces, but gosh, I want to say that about nearly all of them.

Finally, I must note that this event took me back to San Diego’s Old Globe theatre, where I saw what I’m pretty sure was my first Shakespeare production, in 1992, when I was 10 years old. The theatre and surrounding park still felt familiar, and it was such a treat to be there again with my Grammy, thoroughly aside from the quality of the show.

If you have a chance, definitely make a point to see In Your Arms. It was a rare treat for me. There are rumors it might be Broadway-bound, so maybe a larger audience will get an opportunity at it.

Thanks, Grammy, this was so special.

Rating: 9 memories.

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents The Little Prince

little princeThe Little Prince is a magical tale, and I was immediately sold on the idea of a local production, performed by young people no less. The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Drama Camp culminated in this production after less than two weeks; the ability of these teens to stand up with confidence and memorized lines after such brief prep is impressive enough, even if the play hadn’t been beautifully and feelingly done, which it was. Wow.

This was a musical production, and as I said about The Drowsy Chaperone, there were moments of less than perfect polish: these actors (whether youth or adult) are not professionals. But that’s okay! In fact, like when I go to watch college or adult-league sports, it’s part of the charm: I can see that these are “just” real people, like me, pursuing a passion. And I’m not criticizing. The level of performance here was very high – just not Broadway.

There were several very strong singers up there, especially the young lady who played the flower, but they all played their parts well. I felt the magic of St. Exupery’s original work, as these young actors communicated all the emotion of the pilot – his frustration, his regrets – and the prince, whose innocence is part of his appeal. I felt happy and lucky to be in the small audience. Thank you, Neighborhood Playhouse, and to the kids: bravo.

Rating: 7 snakebites.

Bellingham Theatre Guild presents The Drowsy Chaperone

drowsyOn a rainy night, with a sprained ankle, I set out on my bicycle with Pops to see a local amateur production at a neighborhood theatre. In a word, the production was indeed amateur (which is to say, unpolished), but heartfelt and charming; and the play borders on too silly but was ultimately fun.

The narrator is a middle-aged, socially awkward man, sitting in the darkness of his apartment and dreaming about another world. He speaks directly to the audience about the strengths and downfalls of musical theatre, and puts on a record, the soundtrack to a musical of the 1920’s called The Drowsy Chaperone. The action comes to life in his living room, as the original cast performs the play, interrupted by our host’s interjected comments on the show.

The musical is your standard comedy of errors, involving a wedding that not everyone is supportive of, and includes mistaken identities and the beginnings of new romances. It was pretty cheesy, particularly in its song and dance (even more so than your standard musical!), although the tap dancing was a great addition. But as the story developed, I was more tuned in to the pathos of the narrator and more on board with the general silliness of the show-within-the-show. So while it started a little questionably, by the end I had let myself go into the world of the theatre, and it was rewarding. The performances were less than perfect, but again, this is local, amateur, community theatre: adjust your expectations a little, and be prepared for a good time. I left feeling uplifted by the fun, and will be looking for more Bellingham Theatre Guild performances in the future. Thanks, neighbors.

Rating: 6 gimlets.

Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents A View From the Bridge (a Young Vic production)

I recently reviewed A View From the Bridge in preparation for this performance, which like Treasure Island was performed onstage in London, recorded, and then screened at the Lincoln Theatre where I saw Romeo and Juliet (whew).

view bridge

It was outstanding, a truly special experience. The screening opened with a short video incorporating interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes folks involved: the director, set designer, and art director, if memory serves; and scenery video of London (where the theatre is) and Amsterdam (where the director lives). My father, who was my date for this show, commented that it made him miss both cities. We learned a little about the theatre, the director, and the concept for this show: to find a way to surprise the audience even with a play that audiences are expected to know fairly well. I shall avoid spoiling both the play and this production, and only say: they surprised me.

This production was mind-blowingly good, and expertly suited to Miller’s original work. They did deviate from his set design tips: there were no furnishings, just a stark white vinyl floor and wall with a floating glass bench wrapped around the three remaining sides. Costumes were nondescript, neutral or earth tones, and there were few costume changes: Katie changed her shirt when she stood up to Eddie and grew up; and the immigrants changed upon their arrival. This ultra-minimalist lack of color, furniture and set decor left just the actors to carry the story, which they did. The acting was unspeakably good. And the cinematography did it justice: I don’t even recall noting cinematic choices in Treasure Island, which mostly held back and provided panoramic views of the stage – a fine choice, since the stage set in that case was so impressive; but here we relied heavily on close-ups, and the framing really caught my eye. Many shots were close-up of actors’ faces, or scenes involving a few people, say, waist-up; these scenes were then framed by the borders of the white stage set, or framed around one or two props (the chair Marco holds aloft, for example). The whole thing was artistically very fine.

Miller’s humor shone through, but most notably the tension, sexual and violent. There was a percussive gong employed in a few scenes, a slow-paced, low, metronome-like sound that ramped up the tension beautifully, like the tick… tock… of a clock in a silent, anxious room. Somebody in the pre-show video (sorry, I can’t recall who) made an excellent analogy about the play itself: he said that it was like we are watching two cars approach each other at high speed, knowing what is going to happen and then… boom. That is a great description of Miller’s work. It is the story of an inescapable tragedy that we all see coming but are powerless to halt. (This is emphasized further by Mr. Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as chorus, and his foreknowledge and sense of foreboding throughout.)

All in all, in my reading and my watching of this play, I’m deeply impressed: with Miller’s original*, and with this production. If you have a way to access National Theatre Live, don’t miss it. This is some of the finest theatre I’ve ever seen.

Rating: 10 pillowcases.

*I slightly misspeak: as it turns out, Miller’s original was a one-act play. The two-act version that we know best today was actual a reworking, according to Wikipedia.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Treasure Island

The Pickford Film Center regularly offers this format: live-taped broadcasts from the National Theatre in London, of plays performed on the stage there. I was originally skeptical about the concept; would it translate? The answer is yes, and I will be seeking out more.

treasureI was interested because I have fairly recently read (listened to) Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This adaptation for the stage by Bryony Lavery was astoundingly good – on which more to come; this is mostly a rave review – but I don’t know why I’m always so surprised at how much they change from the original. (This is why they call it an ‘adaptation.’ I know the compression/acceleration is necessary, but I’m always taken aback and disappointed. When will I learn?) In this case, most notably from the start: Jim is parented not by his mother but by a grandmother, both of his parents being dead; and Jim starts out as a gender-bending youth, and then becomes clearly a girl. The former, the grandmother for the mother, remains inexplicable to me. She provided some comic relief; maybe the mother from the original, rather a serious, even dour character, was deemed too sober. But I didn’t find the grandmother so much better as to justify making the change.

Jim as a girl, though, was totally amusing and fun, and provided another element. She’s every bit as boyish as the Jim we know and love; it is mainly just a poke at the original, and an inclusion. I dug it. And the gender-bending confusion here and there is good fun. Maybe it’s strange, that the apparently huge change of the protagonist’s sex bothers me less than the substitution of one female relative for another, but there it is.

This format, of stage-on-film? Completely outstanding. I loved that it captured the best of both worlds: the theatricality of the stage with the informality, convenience, and affordability of the big screen. The music & sound effects were great. And the set! My word, this is the finest set I’ve ever seen onstage: the stage itself was round, and the set lifted up from a flat to a multi-story, and also rotated on demand, so that there was no need for darkened figures hurrying to replace scenery while the audience was distracted: they simply turned the stage around, the actors meanwhile performing in our view, and changed what was behind (or took it underground to change it there). Transitions were perfectly seamless, adding to the drama rather than taking away from the momentum of the play, because there was such a sense of movement, of action. I am blown away.

Jim herself, portrayed by Patsy Ferran, was possibly even more astounding than the astounding set. She was delightfully expressive and sort of puckish, and pulled off that gender confusion early on. Lavery’s adaptation keeps Jim as the narrator of the story, so she speaks directly to the audience lots throughout. I loved the emotion and delivery: action, drama, adventure, humor.

As for some complaint about the “feminist twist”: I have to disagree with the Spectator blog. I don’t feel that the play was feminized aside from the change of Jim’s gender; she goes on no feminist tirades; she’s not a particularly feminine girl by any means. It was more of a nod than anything else, and takes nothing away from Stevenson’s original. The tone of that original is unchanged, except in that this version is a little funnier – which has nothing to do with Jim’s nominal gender. If we’re going to take issue with the fact that the play is not precisely the original novel, I think we have bigger beefs than Jim’s gender, frankly: the ending is changed, for example.

This play was even better than the original book, to which it is not completely faithful – for the best.

Rating: 8 apples.

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