guest review: Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando (2019), from Pops

From Pops, from Bellingham’s Sylvia Center (formerly the iDiOM).

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and directed by WWU professor Rich Brown, with five players on a spare stage. Woolf and the story are still mostly inscrutable to me, but the players and staging are wonderful, with multiple vignettes easily adequate to carry the story and action. This production is creatively played with humor and energy as the narrative speeds through centuries, while centered on Orlando personally.

It is a very physical interpretation with much movement, often choreographed like dance; passage of time is depicted by the actors furtively running in circles or helter-skelter in the small stage area. They may use each other for props like tables and chairs; small props emerge on cue from pockets or capes. Some minor wardrobe changes occur in the flow of staging. Ship voyages are inventively evoked by actors’ bodies locked together and swaying with the waves.

Karlee Foster as the androgynous Orlando is perfect, physically as well as in body language and expression. She is ruffled, wild and spirited, but also ruminates over social conventions; all of which is belied by a tranquil and well-groomed promotional studio photo. The 3-man chorus is excellent, and not mere backdrop; they serve as continuous narrators but each also plays at least one woman’s part. The fifth player is an exotic Sasha, Orlando’s lifelong icon of youthful love. Her ‘Romanian’ accent is nearly overdone and perplexing, but her irresistible effect on Orlando is intently, comically obvious.

Suiting the tale, Orlando passionately kisses each of many characters (and all players) at least once – or more! Other, intimate couplings are openly implied with inventive, chaste staging devices, like backlit silhouettes or covering capes. And, always fun, there is a Shakespearean play-within-a-play – of Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar! (the murder of Cassius) It was delightful, lively entertainment; kudos to the venue, the company and the small arts community that continues to display actors of such craft and energy.

What fun this sounds like! I remain unsure of Woolf, and remember Orlando as daunting (I believe from the 1992 film) (then again, I was 10 in 1992, what do you expect). But this stage performance sounds delightful. Maybe that’s just my feeling about (well-produced) theatre in general. I am jealous; I’m not seeing more theatre these days…

Thanks, Pops!

Fulton Theatre presents Next to Normal (2019)

I feel so glad and so lucky that I found a charming little theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and this play to attend. It was a phenomenal performance and experience all around. This is the best part of traveling: finding gems like this.

First of all, the space and background: let me set the stage, if you will. The Fulton Theatre is a grand, historic old opera house, of a certain type. The main theatre space is opulent, extravagant: ornate carvings, gilt, red velvet. My date and I snuck in to see this space after our play was over; but Next to Normal was performed upstairs, in the “studio.” It reminded me very much of the iDiOm/Sylvia, with spare furnishings and rows of chairs set up on the floor for the audience. I was a little disappointed not to see the big grand theatre in action, of course, but I admit seeing this smaller, simpler space was a comfort, because it reminded me of another theatre I’ve really appreciated (I’m still remembering Clown Bar fondly).

the lovely Fulton Opera House (photo credit)

So, a small space, unassuming, and with moderately minimal props and backdrop, and a small cast of just six. I have seen a larger cast play in small space – Clown Bar was one of those exceptions – but generally a smaller space does mean fewer players. They did indulge in costume changes, though.

Now on to the play, itself.

Next to Normal was written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), and I appreciate it very much as a play, to begin with. The topics it deals with are not small undertakings. Family dysfunction and severe mental illness are difficult to approach in any art form, I think. Here we have a mother, Diane, who is ill – how ill becomes gradually clear, but she clearly struggles to get out of bed and deal with her daily life within the home, let alone outside it. Her husband, Dan, means well, but he’s ill-equipped to help his wife with her outsized problems. There are two children who are affected in different ways. And there’s a big reveal part-way through, which I won’t spoil for you here, but it’s important.

Did I mention yet that this play was a musical? A rock musical, that is. It sounded weird coming in (doesn’t it sound weird?) – a rock musical about mental illness and family dysfunction.

The high-school-aged daughter gets her first boyfriend, and Diane has a psychiatrist, and then another (both played by the same actor); and that’s the whole cast: mom, dad, two kids, boyfriend, psych. In two acts, Diane gets sicker. She is prescribed lots of drugs; she experiences hallucinations; she attempts to kill herself; she is hospitalized, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The nuclear family learns some things about themselves individually, about each other, and about how they work together. The ending is surprisingly hopeful, but feels earned.

My one real concern that I want to voice is something that often concerns me in conversations about mental illness. There seem to be two well-intentioned stories we tell ourselves/each other: that it’s okay to take drugs, to get the help one needs; and that one is stronger if one can be okay without drugs. I think it’s tricky to navigate these two messages, either one of which can be potentially damaging. On the one hand, there’s an argument that we’re too pill-happy in this culture, and that we start our kids on drugs too young. On the other hand, the feeling that you’re stronger if you can “do it” without drugs is really problematic for those people who suffer from conditions that require medication, as some do. The narrative of this play came down a little bit on the side of praising and admiring the drug-free path. And if that works for the fictional Diane, of course I am so happy for her. But that kind of praise can be discouraging, even damaging, for patients who need drugs to be okay. I just wanted to voice that because it occurred to me as I watched the play unfold. And as I’m writing this, I guess I need to observe how personal this material felt. Without violating anyone’s privacy, I thought of some loved ones who have struggled or are currently struggling in ways I recognized here. It was sobering and hard to watch, of course, but it also felt good to have certain people seen. Art is powerful. I’m glad that art addresses such topics as these – even the really hard ones – because the hardest parts of life deserve to have this light shined upon them.

Also, can we talk about the extraordinary image, above? Click through to the larger version. That woman with her blurred-out face, the suburban ideal in her torso, and the pills spilling out from her lower extremities. The sense of time passing all around her. That’s an ideal of accompanying art.

Even with this serious and disturbing material, Next to Normal is remarkably also very funny, and so heartwarming, even through the challenges. And played by such gifted actors – I could feel their passion and power. I paused to admire, at intermission, how odd it is that I can be simultaneously aware that this is “just” a play, and also so invested in these characters who are fiction, and I know that, and yet they make me laugh and cry, and I just want for Diane to be okay and for her daughter Natalie to feel loved and to know it’s okay, she doesn’t have to be perfect to make up for everything… I want Dan to know it’s not his job to fix his wife. Gosh, but I love the theatre.

The thing that was most surprising and impressive about this play I’ve saved for last. Listen to this: the actor who played Dan was unavailable at the last minute, and so they called upon an actor with twenty-four hours’ notice to step in. Jeffrey Coon did not have time to learn his lines; he played the role with a bound script in one hand, flipping through its pages as he went. But he knew the scenes! And he knew the music! He played the physical role perfectly, including interactions with other actors; he knew his blocking. And recall this is a musical: when he glanced down at that playbook for his lines, he was often not speaking but singing them. He knew the songs, musically, just needed the words as he went. Because Dan is some kind of businessman, often carrying a briefcase, he was able to make that bound script often serve as a prop, so that it sometimes disappeared and we could forget about it altogether. I have NEVER seen this before. And I cannot imagine it’s ever done this well: Coon’s acting as Dan was superb, spot-on emotionally and in key with his fellow players. His singing was impressive – great voice, but also timing and feeling. I cannot communicate here how impressed I was with this performance. I didn’t know it could work this well. I can only assume this guy (who works for the Fulton as his day job as well) is a professional ideal. My admiration for this art form has just been raised another ten notches, watching this man slide into this slot so smoothly. During final curtain calls, the other actors made a point to celebrate him, too, so that I could see they shared my feelings about his incredible performance.

I feel again like the luckiest woman alive, when I get to travel through a small city and find a shining experience like this one. I’m going to treasure Next to Normal, the Fulton Theatre, and Jeffrey Coon’s performance for some time.


Rating: 9 pills.

Hamilton soundtrack

I don’t usually review music around here, but I’m making an exception for this double-album soundtrack because a) it’s a preview of the actual musical I’ll get to see in about a month’s time (squeal!), and b) it’s highly narrative, so it feels like it belongs.

We’ve all by now heard about the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right? Based on the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (which I may need to read next). I had heard of it, but hadn’t paid much attention until I heard Miranda interviewed on my favorite podcast, Another Round (rest in peace). (That episode is here.) Once I started paying attention, I knew I had to see it. So I got tickets! to go with my friend Jacinda (talented author of Saint Monkey) next month in Louisville, and we can’t wait. (Sadly, I will not see Miranda perform, himself, but I will trust that they’ve chosen a good replacement.) My parents recently saw it performed in San Francisco (still waiting on their guest review[s]!), and my mother sent me this soundtrack.

And it’s phenomenal. The music is impressive in itself – that is, as music, you want to lean it, turn it up, nod along with the beat. There is such a full story communicated in its lyrics – all of which are perfectly legible, rare enough with any genre of music. I can immediately hear that Hamilton’s life was full of drama and inspiration, and I can imagine Miranda reading Chernow’s book and being captured by the wild true story of one man’s experience in and out of American politics. That he took that story and put it into varied and captivating song… is another inspiration in itself. I can hardly believe people are this talented.

My impression is that the entire play is available in these songs – leave it to be seen how true that is, but this double-album is quite a complete narrative in itself. It has everything: compelling, dramatic story; catchy beats; wildly crisp, awesome, technical execution; feeling, voice, and talent. I am deeply excited to see it live.

I’ve listened to the whole thing exactly two times through before writing this review, but of course I’ll be going back through it over and over before the show. So far, my favorite tracks include the introductory opener, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the following “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which Hamilton meets this central character; the pairing “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” which offer parallel love stories with two Schuyler sisters; and the Cabinet Battles, #1 and #2, which are rap battle versions of the stand-offs between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is so exciting! This is how you get the kids (and me) excited about history. I’ve written before about the importance of interdisciplinary studies; I think rap-battle-meets-history-lesson might be the best yet. Also the “Ten Duel Commandments,” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” for its sheer drama, and the final two numbers, “The World Was Wide Enough” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And, well, I love every track.

I also appreciate the threads that tie these songs together: for example, the repeated refrains of helpless and satisfied (in regards to Hamilton’s love life and ambition). I admire the narrative artistry of the song “Satisfied,” in which we rewind to see a scene and story just told in the previous track, from a very different point of view. This is some fine storycrafting.

I’m afraid of going in circles now – or of creating expectations that are too high to satisfy for the live show. So I’ll stop with this high praise.


Rating: 9 shots.

guest review: Bellingham Theatre Guild presents Silent Sky (2019), from Pops

From Pops, and from the Bellingham Theatre Guild, which I miss.

In its 90th year, the Guild does a great job with Silent Sky, a 2015 play by Lauren Gunderson in San Francisco, “an Arts meets Activism writer… currently recognized as America’s most produced living playwright”; she has written many about unappreciated women in history.

It was very well done here by a cast of five; great dialogue well-played, and engaging characters to tell this story of Henrietta Leavitt, who worked as a menial-labor type ‘computer’ for a famous astronomer before making the groundbreaking discovery of ‘Leavitt’s Law’ (circa 1910) that provided “a way to accurately measure distances on an inter-galactic scale” and ultimately allowed Hubble to describe an expanding universe.

It’s hard to tell if they are getting better and better, or we are just appreciating them more. It seems to me that good play-selection is a key thing.

Play selection is a huge deal, I’m sure. You also just seem to have very fine actors (and presumably directors and other behind-the-scenes decision makers), though. My failed attempt at enjoying community theatre in Asheville recently showed me what well-meaning but just poor acting can do for a play: not much good. As Egan said at that event, Bellingham attracts artists, right? Count yourself lucky! I would have enjoyed this one, I think.

Main Street Theatre presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2018)

My lovely Houston friends – the same ones who rented Rent for us – took me to see the sweetest play at Main Street Theatre. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is, of course, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. It takes place at Pemberley after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, have been married a few years. Jane is pregnant; Lydia is still married (not entirely happily) to Mr. Wickham; and Mary and Kitty are still at home. The entire family is now converging on Pemberley, along with an unexpected guest or two: Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant Aunt de Bourgh has just died, and a distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh will be arriving for Christmas as well, having just inherited.

The Miss Bennet of the title here is Mary, the middle sister, whose life has begun to chafe. She loves to read, study, and practice her pianoforte. No one she knows understands her interest in a life of the mind; and while she loves traveling between the pages of books, she aches for a wider-traveled life in the real world, too. At Pemberley, amidst the giddy happinesses and dramas of her sisters, she wishes for more. And more may be in the cards for her just now, to start the new year…

Romantic? Sweet? Rather predictable? All of these things, yes, but so enjoyable. It’s clever and funny and plays at my emotions adeptly. I think it’s really saying something to tell you that while I saw each plot move, more or less, coming, I was still on the edge of my seat, because I had such sympathy for each character. What can I say. Buying into fictional plots might be a specialty of mine.

I loved every bit of this evening. The clever references to Austen’s original (including the genius line about “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune…”), the heartfelt acting, the sweetly familiar setting and simple, charming set. I believe Main Street Theatre qualifies as amateur theatre, but it was very professional. Mary’s piano playing was no small accomplishment in itself; no one broke or stumbled over a line for the whole thing; it was excellent all around. Overall, I think this production accomplished everything intended by the play (by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon). It made appropriate reference to the inspired original and made playful use of my emotions. It was at every turn sweet, and (the idea goes) ’tis the season for sweetness. Here’s to the latest Miss Bennet.


Rating: 7 books with blue covers.

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.
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