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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Review — "Downstairs" at ACT Theatre is Riveting Drama

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
The Seattle premier of the play Downstairs, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Julie Beckman, features a cast of three who create an intense drama. Within the walls of The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, this play is set in a cluttered basement room. There, safety, danger, shelter, exposure, love, hate, fear, hope, and courage all share space far from the light of day. Not even the room's dark corners provide a place for the characters to hide. They must face painful truths about themselves and others before they can emerge as changed human beings, except for one. 

Producing Artistic Director Corey McDaniel founded Theatre22, which partnered with ACTLab to cooperatively produce this play. Downstairs has its roots in the ACT Construction Zone, a festival focused on new plays. From a field of 100 works solicited for the event, Downstairs was among four finalists presented as readings in the autumn of 2016 before being chosen as the one to be fully produced. 

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography

Downstairs tells the story of a troubled and destructive marriage overlapping the relationship between adult siblings, a brother and sister scarred by their late mother's apparent mental illness and their father's early death. Caught in the middle is  Irene, both wife and sister, played by Christine Marie Brown. Brandon Ryan portrays her highly intelligent but sometimes semi-unintelligible brother, Teddy. Disheveled, unemployed and seemingly homeless, he justifies his extended "visit" and occupancy of Gerry and Irene's basement by claiming he is owed the favor. He feels cheated of his inheritance. According to Irene, however, when their mother's estate was being settled, he was too unstable to receive and handle his share. Teddy also hints at imminent plans, entrepreneurial opportunities he refuses to reveal. His presence, deeply resented by Gerry, changes the status quo of the marriage and becomes the catalyst for a crisis capable of destroying everything. 

Irene, at first, is rather cool toward her brother. Yet, in the contradictory and strange dance of their relationship, they each display frustration, annoyance, disagreement, nervous concern, and tender affection. None of this is ever boring. In fact, the play grows more interesting with each line. We realize Irene is nervous for both of them. The more she talks, the more we see her loneliness, low self-esteem, and isolation. She is trapped.

John Q. Smith plays the part of Irene's husband, Gerry, who does not actually appear until the second act. By the time he does, the siblings have already revealed enough about him to mix trepidation with the anticipation. Although Irene makes excuses for Gerry's behavior, she also lets slip to her brother how she has seen the monster within. Her lines included:"Something came out and looked at me. It showed its face." and "He says mean things, terrible things."

The basement room contains a sofa, a workbench above which Gerry's tools hang, a coffee pot, often handled and looked at, but seemingly never containing fresh coffee, a trunk on which sits a supposedly non-working computer (which will become signifiant), some shelving, and various pieces of clutter, such as cardboard boxes and an old lampshade. A curtain covers the doorway to a bathroom, and stairs lead up into the house. Within this environment, Teddy survives on cereal and food his sister prepares and brings to him. He never leaves until the traumatic day he must. 

Photo provided  by MR Toomey Photography

Blankets and afghans lie around on the sofa, floor, and elsewhere. When Irene ventures downstairs to talk to her brother, her handling of these props reveals her mental and emotional state. One minute she is testily tidying, folding them and placing them on the nearby shelves as an attempt to create order from the chaos of her existence. The next minute, she curls up on the sofa with one around her shoulders, seeking comfort. 

Likewise, the exchanges between the siblings can sound sensible or indicative of a mutual madness. Teddy is more obviously mentally ill, but sees certain truths clearly. Irene protects herself with extreme denial and tries to hide a festering anger. Her comments vacillate between near panic over her husband's growing and dangerous resentment to her rosy recollections of life with the mother she and Teddy view quite differently.

Members of the audience may, themselves, feel vulnerable on their ride through this gripping tale. Beware—it deals with abuse. Emotional abuse is built into the script. The threat of physical abuse hovers, ever present. For anyone who has experience either, it might hit too close to home. A disturbing reference to animal cruelty also occurs. As the tension builds, characters become emboldened and surprise us. This drama makes you aware of how a human being who never seemed the type could be pushed to the brink of violence. A few actions will literally startle you.

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
Only the best cast and creative team can make this play work. (Learn more about them here.) Brown's advanced skills enable her to navigate a complex role and sob so convincingly one truly feels her pain. She is a fearful "pleaser" with plenty of suppressed anger. Ryan, as Teddy, draws our empathy along with some suspicion. His rambling lines would not be easy to memorize or execute, but he has mastered them. Smith gave a stunning performance. One of the most chilling moments comes when Gerry finally appears on those stairs. Without saying a word, at first, Smith makes his character terribly threatening, his palpable malevolence coiled behind a thin wall of feigned civility, waiting to strike.

In response to a comment from Teddy, Gerry coldly says, "Trust me, you will know when things are not polite. I don't care what you think , and I don't care what she thinks."

Photo provided by MR Toomey Photography
Yes, this is a dark tale, but not entirely, or forever. If even offers small doses of humor. At the very heart of it, and as its motivation, lie hope and the potential for healing. A story, in order to be a story, must take characters on a journey, and this one does. Each will reveal inner weaknesses and strengths, for good or evil, as they follow the paths to their inevitable futures. If you prefer an evening of light entertainment, see something else. If you want to experience truly riveting theater, get your tickets now.

Note: Although these photos appear dark, the lighting on stage is much brighter.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"ROMY AND MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION" is probably much more fun than yours was — A Review

Cortney Wolfson as Romy and Stephanie Renee Wall as Michele in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
I could begin this review of the musical Romy and Michele's High School Reunion with the words, "The 5th Avenue Theatre has done it again!" But then I would be repeating myself. The 5th is renowned for the number and quality of its new works. In the past 17 years, the amazing talents there have created 18 new musicals, including this one. Nine of them have gone on to Broadway. Two have won Tony Awards® for Best Musical. Therefore, I will begin instead with the ending—a standing ovation accompanied by as much applause as I have ever heard within the walls of this historic theater. That level is likely to continue every night during its run, which ends on July 2, 2017. Everyone can relate to its messages. This high-energy, colorful, and fun musical, is based on the 1997 film by the same name, which I must confess I have never seen. Regardless of how it might compare with the film, this production dazzled the crowd on opening night.

Stephanie Renee Wall (Romy), Cortney Wolfson (Michele) and the cast of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

Directed by Kristin Hanggi, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion takes a realistic look at the anxiety surrounding any 10th high school reunion. In this case, it's taking place in 1997 for the Class of 1987 from fictitious Sagebrush High in Tucson, Arizona. Devoted best friends, Romy White (Cortney Wolfson) and Michele Weinberger (Stephanie Renee Wall) have been roommates since graduation, now living in Los Angeles. One is employed and one is not. They spend a lot of time in bathrobes, sitting on the couch in their messy apartment, watching TV. Or maybe they dress in the over-the-top fashions they prefer and hit the club scene. 

When Romy and Michele receive a reminder that their class reunion is happening in two weeks, they debate whether to attend or not. Once they agree to go, they are in a mad dash to come up with facetious ways to impress their classmates and hide the fact that they have next to nothing to show for an entire decade after graduation. They pretend to be business women, each claiming (separately) to have invented Post-it® Notes. The results of how they clumsily execute these falsehoods, along with revelations of their real feelings about and for each other, test their friendship and give the story the tension it needs to be more than a cliché.  

Cortney Wolfson (Romy White) and Stephanie Renee Wall (Michele Weinberger) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Tracy Martin
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion explores the nature of friendship, the viciousness of high school's mini society, the pressure to succeed and to survive harsh judgement, and the self discovery and self acceptance hopefully acquired with maturity. Who doesn't remember a caste system dominated by your own high school's equivalent to this musical's "A-group," clique of snobbish girls? In this case, they are the cheerleaders, a unfair stereotype, to be honest, but one often held up as an example. Their mean-spirited leader is Christie Masters (Tess Soltau) who has claimed and will dominate the school's most popular male heart throb, Billy Christianson (Michael Starr). 

Hannah Schuerman (Toby Walters) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
Sometimes insecurity and immaturity can make "nice" people be cruel. Then there are the not-nice ones who will always be that way. As in real life, elevated social status in high school does not always last. Most of us have seen popular kids end up losers and some of the so-called "losers" end up great successes. To its credit, the musical is honest in showing how even the victims and the heroines themselves were capable of hurting others in turn. 

Among those carrying wounds from the past are three quintessentially typical characters every class has. They are the rebel "bad girl" smoker Heather Mooney (Jordan Kai Burnett), the cheerful goody-goody, Toby Walters (Hannah Schuerman) who is nice to everyone, even those who laugh at her behind her back, and the nerdy guy whose attentions are always rejected, in this case Sandy Frink (Michael Thomas Grant). Like the two co-stars, all these other cast members, and the ensemble, gave outstanding performances.

Jordan Kai Burnett (Heather Mooney) in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - Photo Credit Tracy Martin

The show's fine acting and singing, impressive dancing, and, more made for non-stop enjoyment. The music and lyrics, by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay, don't hold back. Fabulous choreography by Peggy Hickey and the work of Dance Captain Trina Mills made it hard to even blink your eyes. The dance moves synchronized perfectly with the music. Tim Symons directed, and played in, a great combo of keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. Amy Clark dressed the cast in the ideal costumes. Another fine aspect was The 5th Avenue's typically versatile, well-functioning, and clever stage sets, this time designed by Donyale Werle.

Although the truths presented in this musical exist in every generation, certain aspects of the show can make the viewer aware of generational differences too. Its flavor, and rightfully so, is definitely of the 1980s and '90s, making those of us who were busy being parents by then feel uncomfortably old. The music stuck me as being a bit too loud, but I think people who did graduate in 1987 probably liked it that way. On the plus side, even with the volume up, I could hear and understand all the lyrics, so kudos to Christopher Walker's excellent sound design and the engineering. Some of the bright lights shining right in my eyes at times bothered me a little, but again, I might be extra sensitive to that. The lighting overall greatly enhanced this musical. It was definitely a visual treat in so many ways. 

Of course it is silly. Of course some aspects of the plot seem farfetched. But we go to musicals to escape the real world for a couple of hours and be happily entertained. No one fulfills that wish with as much style, class, quality, and pizazz, or true success, as this wonderful venue. Considering all that, I guess I will end up repeating myself.

"The 5th Avenue Theatre has done it again!" 

Treat yourself to the pleasure of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. For your convenience, here's a link to the online box office

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Cultural imPRINT" Exhibit at Tacoma Art Museum Highlights Northwest Native Printmakers

Ben Davidson (b. 1976) Haida First Nation
Just About, 2014 Screenprint
281⁄2 × 181⁄2 inches
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Ben Davidson (b. 1976), Haida First Nation, Just About, 2014. Screenprint, 281⁄2 × 181⁄2 inches. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 

When you think of Northwest Coast Native and First Nations art, you probably picture three-dimensional carvings, jewelry, or basketry, but an exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum will expand your perceptions. Titled Cultural imPRINT: Northwest Coast Prints, it provides a stunning survey of printmaking by contemporary Northwest native artists. Artists from these indigenous communities have been exploring and innovating within this two-dimensional art form as a means of cultural and personal expression since the 1960s. The ancient stylized images of animal, human, aquatic and other forms seen in nature, and the typical colors most of us associate with native art, translate beautifully into prints. However, this display of close to 50 pieces also includes some most interesting surprises. 

Cultural imPRINT resulted from a partnership between Northwest native art enthusiasts north and south of the 49th parallel. Tacoma Art Museum's Haub Curator of Western American Art, Faith Brower, and guest curator and Haub Fellow, India Young, from Victoria, B.C., cooperated to create and present this wonderful display for the museum's visitors to enjoy. The works are presented with a theme, which Brower refers to as "intergenerational legacies." This exhibition closes on August 20, 2017 and is not to be missed. 

Marika Swan (b. 1982)
Nuu-chah-nulth, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation
Becoming Worthy—State I, 2016
Digital print
3⁄8 × 321⁄2 inches
Courtesy of Stonington Gallery

Marika Swan (b. 1982), Nuu-chah-nulth, Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, Becoming Worthy—State I, 2016. Digital print, 283⁄8 × 321⁄2 inches. Courtesy of Stonington Gallery. 

"We really hope that our visitors are able to take away a greater appreciation for the Northwest coast region and a better understanding for the people who live in this area," Brower said. "We also hope that the exhibition is able to communicate the idea that a lot of these contemporary artists are able to honor their cultures and traditions through this artwork, and they are also able to find their own voices and bring their own experience into the artwork."

Many people are less familiar with this type of art in print form than others, et these artists have been very prolific. Young estimated the potential number of prints in circulation to be up to 10,000. She also mentioned that, while showing artists familiar to many people, the exhibition also shows those who "continue to share their specific cultural knowledge in new ways." 

Phil Janzé (b. 1950; d. 2016) Gitxsan First Nation
Robin’s Egg, 1981
Digital print

11 × 15 inches
Courtesy of Lattimer Gallery

Phil Janzé (b. 1950; d. 2016), Gitxsan First Nation, Robin’s Egg, 1981. Digital print, 11 × 15 inches. Courtesy of Lattimer Gallery. 
"It’s just an imprint, because there’s so much work out there," Young said. "We can only capture a small portion of that history and ongoing legacy."

Even that small portion offers a visually rich experience, interesting, and educational experience. You will be glad to have discovered this particular printmaking world.

"This show is filled with incredible work," Brower said. 

I could not agree more.

Click HERE for information on hours and admission, and please remember that every third Thursday is FREE between 5 and 8 p.m. The next third Thursday will be June 22nd, this coming week. Do you need directions or other information? Please see this "Plan Your Visit" link.

Robert Davidson (b. 1946) Haida First Nation
Before the Snag, 1997 Screenprint
58 × 44 inches
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

Robert Davidson (b. 1946), Haida First Nation, Before the Snag, 1997. Screenprint, 58 × 44 inches. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 
Two other news items related to this exhibition might also be of interest. 


Coming up on Saturday, August 19, 2017 


           Held in partnership with the Washington State History Museum, the annual “In the Spirit” community festival combines both museum’s popular festivals, allowing the community to come together and experience a cultural showcase. The festival features art exhibitions at both museums, a market and a fashion show. Be sure to catch the art exhibitions, as both exhibitions close the next day, August 20. Check this link  ( for more details on this event!

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Antique Tractor Show and Pull This Weekend on the Olympic Peninsula

If you love antique tractors, here is a fun idea for the weekend. Members of the Olympic Peninsula Antique Tractor & Engine Association have been busy for months preparing for the club's annual tractor show and pull. It takes place on June 3-4 at the south end of the Port Orchard Airport property, easy to find from Highway 16 on the Olympic Peninsula. Click HERE to view a map.

If you're wondering what this event will involve, please take a look at the schedule shown below. There are all kinds of activities to participate in or enjoy watching. What a fun way celebrate the (unofficial) arrival of summer!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of "Busman's Honeymoon" at Taproot Theatre—A Murder Mystery With Something to Say

Terry Edward Moore and Alyson Scadron Branner in Busman’s Honeymoon at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Even the most carefully planned honeymoon can have a few unpleasant surprises. For the newlyweds in Dorothy L. Sayers' play Busman's Honeymoon, at Taproot Theatre in Seattle through June 24, 2017, the biggest surprise is the discovery of a corpseAs horrifying as this would be for anyone, it causes complications for the couple as they negotiate their respective roles, goals, and priorities in their new marriage. He is the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey (Terry Edward Moore), a veteran of World War I and sometimes detective. His bride, the former Harriet Vane, now Lady Peter Wimsey (Alyson Scadron Branner) writes detective novels. Although far more interested in each other than yet another case, they cannot avoid becoming involved in solving the crime that has occurred in their own newly purchased English country house.

Robert Gallaher, Reginald André Jackson & Jenny Cross in Busman’s Honeymoon at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Any fantasies they have of a romantic honeymoon vanish as soon as they arrive, even before the body is found. In spite of prior arrangements, the house is not ready. In fact, on their first night there, we come to learn, the neglected fireplace chimneys smoke so badly a chimney sweep, Mr. Puffett (Reginald André Jackson) is called in to help. The play opens to a realistic scene in the living room of the country estate with the soot-covered Mr. Puffett at work with his broom inside the fireplace and all the furniture draped with sheets. The entertaining Puffett approaches his work with pride and professionalism. He also has plenty of opinions.

The cleaning lady and neighbor, Mrs. Ruddle (Pam Nolte), whose character and honestly could possibly be questioned, attends to her chores while gossiping non stop. The resentful gardener and mechanic Frank Crutchley (Kevin Pitman) wants money to open his own garage, and the butler Bunter (Nolan Palmer) tries his best to maintain order. In the midst of the chaos, Miss Twitterton (Jenny Cross), the niece of the home's former owner, arrives to introduce herself and pay her respects. She, like everyone else, is shocked to learn her uncle has sold his house. To add to the confusion, no one has seen him for days. When the butler heads to basement to retrieve some beer, the discovery of the uncle's body explains his absence.  

Brad Walker, Frank Lawler &Terry Edward Moore in Busman’s Honeymoonat Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Additional characters are the policemen, Superintendent Kirk (Frank Lawler), Constable Sellon (Brad Walker), as well as The Reverend Simon Goodacre (Robert Gallaher) and Scotsman Mr. MacBride (Keith Dahlgren), a debt collector. Like all the characters, they contribute to the drama and intrigue of a many-faceted mystery involving various relationships, personal problems, motivations, and other forces that drive the narrative and keep the audience wondering. Producing Artistic Director Scott Nolte makes it all work beautifully. 

From a visual standpoint, Mark Lund has designed yet another great set, and the amazingly talented Sarah Burch Gordon's costumes could not have been better. I especially loved Harriet Wimsey's stunning red and black ensemble. The entire production team deserves praise.

In spite of the play's more serious aspects, such as its look at class distinctions, gender roles, cultural expectations, it is full of delightfully lighthearted moments and good humor. All characters have strong and memorable personalities, sometimes complimenting each other, sometimes clashing, sometimes sparkling with energy and liveliness. The chemistry between Lord and Lady Wimsey feels especially genuine, flirtatious, and fun, but not without some push and pull. I would love to see these two actors perform as a couple again. On the side of less fun, the angst of young Constable Sellon and heartbreak of the spinster Miss Twitterton are palpable. 

Kevin Pitman & Jenny Cross in Busman’s Honeymoon at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Dorothy L. Sayers first wrote Busman's Honeymoon as a play, in 1936, before publishing it as a novel in 1937. Beyond writing a mere a detective story, Sayers examined the actual consequences, to both the accusers and the criminal, of establishing guilt and enacting justice. These serious concerns probably reflected her thoughts on the aftermath of World War I and warfare's lasting effect on soldiers. Lord Wimsey cannot possibly approach the investigation with business-like detachment. He is all too aware of how his conclusions can literally mean life or death for the accused.

Just as these characters are caught up in their circumstances, allow yourself to be caught up in this engaging play. Unlike them, you can be entertained and still walk away with your life unchanged, except perhaps having gained some material for deeper thought about the struggle between what we want and what duty requires us to do. You will also enjoy playing detective yourself as you ponder the clues in this clever "who done it" tale.

Terry Edward Moore & Alyson Scadron Branner in Busman’s Honeymoon at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"The Secret Garden" at The 5th Avenue Theatre Brings Grown-up Depth to a Childhood Favorite

Among the many books I read as a girl, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's book The Secret Garden remains a favoriteI fell in love with it all over again on opening night of the revival of the award-winning 1991 Broadway musical The Secret Garden at The 5th Avenue Theatre, in Seattle. It runs there until May 6, 2017. The story, originally serialized in 1910, appeared shortly after in book form and remained popular throughout my 1960s childhood, at least. As an adult, I now appreciate this story even more, as moving and meaningful in a most grown-up way. Presented with stunning beauty in all aspects of the sets, lighting, sound, music, costumes, and special effects, it becomes a magical experience.

The 5th Avenue Theater's Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong not only directs this masterpiece but also did the choreography. His exceptional taste and talents maximize the potential of Marsha Norman's book and lyrics, Lucy Simon's music, and the fine cast. The production is the product of a collaboration between The 5th Avenue and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. It includes impressive and award-wining actors from our nation's opposite shore as well as the Pacific Northwest. (You can learn more about cast members and read their bios by clicking here.) 

Josh Young as Dr. Neville Craven in The Secret Garden- Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Like all children of rich, indulgent, but indifferent parents, who provide material things in place of genuine love and closeness, the young protagonist, Mary Lennox (Bea Corley) was already a miserable, bossy, unappealing, and lonely child when orphaned in late 19th century India. Her parents, there as part of the British Raj, die in a cholera epidemic. So does the woman who comes closest to being her surrogate mother, the servant Aya (Maya Maniar) Other servants abandon the household out of fear, leaving the child completely alone. After being discovered by British military officers, she is sent back to England to live at the Yorkshire country estate of her appointed guardian, a reclusive and hunchbacked uncle named Archibald Craven, played by Broadway and West End star Tam Mutu. 

Daisy Eagan as Martha and Bea Corley as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Meanwhile, the estate's staff tries to be loving and patient with this difficult girl who needs to learn how to get along with others. She has not known parental love and normal family life, or even friendships with peers. Seattle favorite Marianne Owen gives a fine performance as the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. So does Daisy Eagan as the warm and charming maid, Martha. Coincidentally, Eagan herself played the role of Mary Lennox in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden. She became the youngest female actor to win a Tony Award® for Best Musical as a result. 

Tam Mutu as Archibald Craven and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
The actual garden in "The Secret Garden" was the special haven of Archibald Craven's young wife, Lily (Lizzie Klemperer). After her death, he sank into a pathetic existence as a mournful recluse who cannot accept or move beyond his loss. Long before Mary's arrival, the gate to this walled garden was locked and the key hidden. Special effects abound in this spectacular production. My favorite was the large artist's portrait of Lily, complete with the rich and glowing colors of a Maxfield Parish painting. From within the frame on the wall, she comes to life and sings, her unforgettable soprano voice filling the theater. 

Ignored by her uncle in his vast estate on the Yorkshire moors, Mary's only companions are her nursemaid Martha, Martha's brother Dickon (Charlie Franklin) and the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff (Seán G. Griffin). From them, this lost and lonely child begins to discover the joys of both nature and friendship, instead of being entirely focused on herself. She also obsesses about the overgrown and neglected garden and wants desperately to get inside. 

Bea Corley as Mary Lennox and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

After hearing cries in the night, young Mary discovers another secret. Confined to his room is her equally miserable cousin, Colin Craven (Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger), a boy about her age. He is the son of her Uncle Archibald and late Aunt Lily. After his mother died in childbirth, for all the following years, he was hidden, kept in bed, and sometimes drugged by a physician uncle, Doctor Neville Craven (Josh Young), Archibald's younger brother. The decision was supposedly an attempt to preserve the seemingly fragile life of the tiny infant, and out of fear that he would inherit his father's deformity. This part of the story is the most difficult to fathom, but true to the book. Archibald, because of his unbearable grief, sees his son only when the boy is asleep. The doctor, whose motivations complicate the plot, has convinced the child that he cannot walk and will die. After Mary's intervention, his life will change. The garden will come to symbolize the very idea of spring and rejuvenation, both botanically speaking and within the human heart. 

Lizzie Kelmperer as Lily Craven and Coleman Hunter as Colin Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
Mary and Colin, each dealing with challenges and circumstances imposed on them by adults, will finally discover within the walls of the Secret Garden the freedom and joy every childhood should include. Both of these young actors amazed me with singing abilities beyond their years. They sang with confidence, clarity, and volume, worthy to perform with the adult actors around them, whose vocals were consistently excellent, moving, and beautiful. At times, this musical seems more like opera, accompanied by the theater's outstanding orchestra, at its best. In fact, this entire production is The 5th Avenue at its best, in every way.

The Cast of The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
If you need to be uplifted by a story about hope and the renewal of the spirit, this is it. And speaking of spirits, this musical is populated with them, eight spirits in all. Illuminated and ever present, they poignantly suggest that past and present may exist simultaneously, with our absent loved ones still near, though unseen. The loved ones surrounding me when I was the little girl who read this book decades ago, seemed close as I sat in the audience. Revisited your own memories of childhood wonder and innocence, in the context of your adult perspective. Make plans now to see The Secret Garden.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Evidence of Things Unseen" at Taproot Theatre Poignantly Mirrors Real Life — A Review

 No matter who you are, the play Evidence of Things Unseen, at Seattle's Taproot Theatre now through April 29, will feel personal to you. Life is complicated, for all of us. This finely crafted drama by Seattle native Katie Forgette takes the raw clay of that simple truth and sculpts a story filled with the pain of grief and the release of humor, tension and tenderness, the desire for revenge and the need to let go. Forgette's complex characters will remind you of friends, family members, or even yourself. Their conversations sound natural and believable, spiced with wittiness. Above all, this beautifully acted play is a story of finding grace.

Michael Winters, Christine Marie Brown and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Two very different sisters each love their elderly father and want to help him deal with a tragedy even as they struggle to do so themselves. Jane (Jenny Vaughn Hall, who impressed me before in Best of Enemies) turns to her Christian beliefs while her sister Abigail (Christine Marie Brown) has little patience with all of that. Their opposing views create seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. In spite of their obvious love for each other, jealousies and insecurities surface. Choosing action over passivity, Abigail seeks justice above all, but will find that it is not a simple or satisfying matter. Their most lovable father, Jack (Michael Winters), a former academic, is living in a care facility, where bird watching remains his only joy. Their three-partner dance involves fluid shifts of protectiveness, parent/child dynamics, and personal power. They perform this dance to the music of genuine love and concern for each other, even while not always quite in step.

The fourth character, Daniel (Chip Wood), seems to be the axis of guilt and regret, from which fateful consequences swirl outward to envelope other lives. Yet he has his own story too. The script raises seriously questions about responsibility and accountability when personal pain leads to choices that affect others.

Then there are the ghosts who also dwell on the edges of this expanding universe, beyond reach, but forever a part of it. We all have those. 

Christine Marie Brown, Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Another kind of loss examined, if lightly, in this play is the very real loss of personal power over one's bodily capabilities, range of choices, and living circumstances, as aging occurs. Jack's sense of losing his significance to society feels painfully real, thinking of our own parents and what lies ahead for each of us. What he must face reminds me of a sad observation. No matter how well life is lived, or how many decades people have faithfully "paid their dues," they never seem to reach the point where the work is done and they can simply, happily, coast along. Even to the very end, most of us will continue to be called upon to face and adjust to loss and change.

We all have families. We all experience loss. We all struggle, at times, to understand why things happen the way they do. And that goes for even the most religiously devout among us. At one point, the frustrated Jane looks heavenward and says, "You can step in any time now!" Is there really a grand plan behind the way lives intersect as they do, or do events happen randomly? Can we love and  work together for a greater good, even we disagree? These questions and more, make the play relatable to every person in the audience.

Beautifully spare in terms of props, actors, and explanations, the play manages in only about 80 minutes, and with a storyline covering only a few days, to give us the sense of decades of marriage, misunderstandings, mistakes, and personal journeys of growth.  Scott Nolte's excellent direction draws the best from these fine actors and a powerful script that also includes many very funny lines. I have seen so much great acting at Taproot, and this is some of the best. 

Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Through the use of sound effects—singing birds and flowing water—we immerse ourselves in the peacefulness of nature. In contrast to these imagined bucolic scenes, however, is the background to this stage set, which, frankly, detracted. I have always loved the sets at Taproot, and expect to again, but not this one. I would describe it as a tangled, thorny-looking, and slightly disturbing frame at the back of the stage that seemed incongruent with the story, although dramaturg Sonja Lowe would disagree. In an article in the program titled Fragmented Wholeness, she explains how the abstract structures Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira creates from found scraps of wood, refuse of the streets, inspired scenic designer Amanda Sweger. Meant to represent "brokenness and wholeness," its symbolism was apparently too subtle for my mind. Instead, it merely distracted from a beautiful, although painful, story. At times, I felt the same way about the music, although the sound design in general was well done.

Those were the only two slight negatives in this most worthwhile and moving production. As usual, Sarah Burch Gordon's costume design is pure perfection. The way she dressed these characters said as much about their personalities and tastes as any lines spoken.

This intense and beautifully acted play brings memories of our own moments of family drama, sibling tensions, and questions that remain unanswered. The tenderness I felt toward the father, Jack, clearly came from my own experiences at the end of my own father's life. In the case of this particular family in Evidence of Things Unseen, the things unseen, the "truths," can only be viewed from a distance, by stepping back far enough from ourselves and our own perceptions to see the greater whole, the biggest of the big pictures. The evidence that meaning does exist must be, simply, the existence of love. Reconnect with yours at Taproot. I highly recommend this play.

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