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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.


For tickets, see http://taproottheatre.org  or call (206) 781-9708. 


Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of "THE PAJAMA GAME" at The 5th Avenue Theatre — No slumber at this lively party.




The Pajama Game, at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, now through March 5, 2017, invites your news-weary brain to slip into something more comfortable. But don't expect to get any sleep. This rollicking musical packs great music, dance, and song into a tale of workplace romance, office politics, and labor union woes, all with a happy resolution. Based on a 1953 novel called 7 1/2 Cents, by Richard Bissell, it portrays both romantic and economic conflicts in a story about the struggles employees of the Sleep-Tite pajama factory face when they ask for a raise in that amount. The company's owner, Mr. Hasler (David Pichette), will have none of it and expects his handsome new hire, Supervisor Sid Sorokin (Josh Davis) to support and enforce his views. When Sorokin falls for the union's Grievance Committee head, Katherine "Babe" Williams (Billie Wildrick), the sexual tension heats up, especially with the two of them on opposite sides of the issue. The story is dated, true, but put it in the context of society in the 1950s, get past the issues, and just enjoy it for what it is.

Sid Sorokin (Joshua Davis) and Katherine "Babe" Williams (Billie Wildrick)  in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

George Abbott and Richard Bissell wrote the book for this musical, which first opened on Broadway on May 13, 1954, winning Tony Awards® in 1955 in three categories— Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, for Carol Haney, and Best Choreography, for Bob Fosse. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote the music and lyrics for this and their other hit, Damn Yankees, before Ross died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1955. Unlike other teams, Adler and Ross were each both composer and lyricist and contributed their skills equally. Post war musicals, like the era's pop music (not counting rock 'n' roll) had a tamer, more civilized sound than during the Swing Years. The energy of The Pajama Game harkened back to the spectacularly jazzy and lively musicals of the 1930s. Tunes like Steam Heat, Hey There, There Once Was a Manand Hernado's Hideaway thrilled audiences and became hits in their own right. 

Gladys (Sarah Rose Davis) dances at Hernando's Hideaway in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

No group of musicians could have performed these tunes better than the fabulous orchestra at The 5th Avenue Theatre did when I attended on opening night. With musical direction by Joel Fram, this orchestra deserves much of the credit for The 5th Avenue having become the nation's supreme home for musical theater. The 17 members were flawless in their abilities. Even the volume seemed perfect. And speaking of sounds, Sound Designer Ken Travis made magic. Touches like the hiss of steam irons helped bring it all to life.

The company of The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
Director Bill Berry brought out the absolute best in this talented cast, where even minor parts make major contributions to a production packed full of fun. Here is an Ensemble so full of characters with distinct and memorable personalities. The chemistry of the lead couple felt realistic in their portrayal of the hot and cold, angst and ecstasy of being madly in love.  The first chance to hear Davis sing was his solo number A New Town is a Blue Town. The power of his voice made me eager to hear more. Then, when he and Wildrick sang as a duo, I loved the way their two fine voices seem as made for each other as their characters were. They blended beautifully, which is not always the case. 


Hines (Greg McCormick Allen) and Mabel (Shaunyce Omar) in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre. 
​Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
Other relationships, whether romantic or casual, offered just as much sparkle. Factory foreman, Hines (Greg McCormick) has a serious jealousy problem concerning his flirtatious girlfriend, the boss's secretary Gladys (Sarah Rose Davis). He deals with it (unconvincingly) with hilarious help from the receptionist, Mabel (Shaunyce Omar) in the song I'll Never be Jealous Again. Omar, McCormick, Omar, and Davis all infused their characters with so much personality they will stick in your mind. So will the boss, Mr. Hasler. Pichette gave a fun and fiery performance. So did Taryn Darr as Mae, the hot blooded, redhead union member. Other fine performances were given by Kyle Robert Carter, as the union "Prez," Allen Galli, as Babe's "Pop," and the charismatic Lauren Du Pree in the role of the employee Brenda and as a member of the Ensemble.


Prez (Kyle Carter) and Mae (Taryn Darr) in The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin
Bob Richard's perfect choreography (including the tap numbers I always crave) contributed so much to the revelation of character and emotion, as much as any singing or acting. Director Bill Berry, in addition to allover excellence in direction, would be the one to thank for the impactful touches of physical comedy so important to the enjoyment factor in this production. This cast is obviously having a great time, and the audience feels that vibe. 

Outside of the non-stop movement and actual dancing, the greatest visual impact came from the wow-worthy set designs, costumes, and lighting, by Carol Wolfe Clay, Rose Peterson, and Robert J. Aguilar, respectively. Wooden posts supporting the roof inside the factory magically turned into the trucks of leafy trees in a park or surrounding a house. Period perfect clothing was a delight, and the lighting used during the scene of the company picnic on a summer day seemed so natural I could almost feel the heat. Other times, as in the nightclub scene at Hernando's Hideaway, creative use of lighting made the mood.


The company of The Pajama Game at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin
Whenever I watch a performance, I think about what it takes, including behind the scenes, to pull a great show together. Everyone involved gives it all they have. However, even as a reviewer who likes to emphasize the positive, I still often observe aspects of plays and musicals that, in my opinion, detract at least slightly. On our long drive home after each show we see, my husband and I discuss and compare our impressions. In this case we heartily agreed that this production of The Pajama Game is a masterpiece, possibly the best musical we have ever seen at The 5th Avenue. Dare I call it flawless? YES! For the first time ever, I will!

I recommend going to the theater's online box office right now to order tickets for The Pajama Game immediately. 

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Room Service" Delivers at Taproot Theatre in Seattle— A Review


Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug
On February 3, Seattle's Taproot Theatre opened its 2017 Jewell Mainstage season with the classic comedy Room Service. It sounded as appealing to me as a bowl of hot soup on that rainy, gloomy evening in this particularly dark winter, and it was. It warmed, cheered, nourished, and satisfied, but with different seasonings than I expected. As with real room service, you don't know until you lift off the shiny domed cover whether or not the order will match the image in your mind. This did not quite match mine, but still pleased me.

Knowing a bit about this work's history will help shape your own expectations. Although its promotion includes references to the famous Marx Brothers, attendees need to understand that the original play inspired the 1938 Marx Brothers movie by that name, not the other way around. 

Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Eric Hampton in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Written by Allen Boretz and John Murray in 1937, the play Room Service  lifted the spirits of audiences during the Great Depression and became a hit. That success led RKO Pictures to buy the rights in order to produce the 1938 film version, using the Marx Brothers. It was not as successful as other films written specifically for them, or as successful as the original play itself, which ran through 500 performances. Yet, if you are a diehard Marx Brothers fan, you might expect this production's actors to imitate that unique brand of silliness, and be disappointed. Let go of that notion and appreciate it for its own merits.


Mike Spee, Bill Johns, Nikki Visel and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Like the movie, Taproot's Room Service, directed by Associate Artistic Director Karen Lund, tells the story of an intrepid theater troupe, high on enthusiasm but short on funds as they try to produce a play. Their producer, Gordon Miller (Erwin Galán), is running up huge bills by housing all of them in the White Way Hotel while he waits to find a financial backer. Coincidentally, the manager of the hotel, Joseph Gribble (Mike Spee) is married to Miller's sister. This relationship puts poor Gribble in a most awkward and stressful position, (made all the more tense by Spee's fine acting) especially after hotel company executive, Gladys Wagner (Nikki Visel) arrives to whip the White Way into shape. She has had enough of Miller's overdue bills and threatens to kick out the whole theater company.

Miller, his director, Harry Binion (Daniel Stoltenberg), and his business manager, Faker England (Eric Hampton) prepare to hastily  leave town when two things happen that give them hope and complicate matters. The young playwright, small town mama's boy Leo Davis (Christopher Morson) unexpectedly shows up at the hotel, penniless and owing money on his typewriter. With no place to go, he stays in a room shared by others who will exploit him in several ways, stealing the typewriter to buy food, and having him fake a serious illness to prevent their expulsion from the hotel. About the same time, Miller's girlfriend, Christine Marlowe (Melanie Hampton) seems to have found a backer at last.

Eric Hampton, Melanie Hampton, Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Christopher Moron in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

That backer, a well-known person, is represented by a woman named Sylvia Jenkins (Kim Morris) who arrives for a meeting with Miller to give him a check (that ultimately bounces because she stops payment). Morris's performance in this role was one of the best and funniest in the production, perfect, really. The combination of Jenkin's gushy, lady-like demeanor and obvious lust for young males creates a delightful and engaging character. Morris has also mastered the art of subtlety, making the role all the more enticing by causing one to wonder if Jenkins is really who she claims to be, or is possibly pulling off a trick of her own. In addition to playing the part of Jenkins, Morris also appeared in the smaller role of Thelma Hogarth, a representative of a collection agency, with equally hilarious results.

The tension in this play arises from several sources. Will the money come through in time to keep the troupe from being thrown out on the street? Who will be fired? Will the staged illness and possible (faked) death of Davis result in scandal against the hotel too great for Wagner to risk, thereby forcing her cooperation? Will Davis see his play be produced and successful, solving all their worries? 

Laura Lee Caudill and Christopher Morson in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Many other facets of this fun farce offer good entertainment. A romantic attraction between Davis, and hotel employee Hilda Manney (Laura Lee Caudill) provides awkward moments. A Russian-American actor named Sasha Smirnoff (Bill Johns) wants desperately to audition for a part, to the point of bringing food from the kitchen to the theater troupe's starving leaders in exchange for the opportunity. The talented Johns excelled in this role, as well as three others. He also played Dr. Glass, a bank messenger, and Senator Blake. Stoltenberg, as the director, Binion, was another of my favorites. He could drop a hilarious comment like no one else. Hampton, as business manager Englund, offered some good laughs too, through his goofy character. 

Galán, as Miller, the part played by Groucho Marx in the film version, is not Groucho, nor does he need to be. Without the cigar, monotone voice, and animated eyebrows, this very experienced actor did a fine job of creating his own unique version of a lively character who will do anything to produce the play, even if that involves shenanigans. 

Taproot Theatre serves up this production of Room Service with the perfect place setting. All action happens within a single hotel room complete with just the right furnishings and multiple doors as props. Much of the show's non-stop action involves them opening and slamming shut as character find themselves locked in or out, coming, going, hiding, and escaping. It's madcap fun.

The costume staff, true to my observations at all Taproot productions, did an outstanding job. Lighting, sound, and stage direction were excellent too.

Nikki Visel, Bill Johns and Mike Spee in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

If the play has any drawbacks at all, it could be those references to the Marx Brothers and some bits of physical comedy that came close to their style, but still fell somewhat short. The production might have tried too hard to replicate that particular zaniness, unnecessarily, since it can stand on its own.

As a comedy, rather than a drama, Room Service delivers a light meal, but one worth enjoying. It also serves to remind us, as our nation faces uncertainty, that humor helps buoy hope and the arts are critical to any society's collective intellectual and emotional well-being. (So please support live theater!)

The show runs through March 1, 2017. In addition to the regular schedule  (with more than 20 performances remaining as of the date of this post's publication), the theater offers some special events. One is a Valentine's Day performance at 7:30 on Feb. 14. Intergenerational Matinee at 10 a.m. on Feb. 15, followed by an educational post-play discussion. 

Taproot Theatre Company, a professional, no-profit theatre company, is located at 204 N 85th St., Seattle WA 98103 

Box office hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Phone (206) 781-9707OX 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

PORTRAITS OF THE HOMELESS IN SEATTLE - a tent city gallery

   

Photo by Terry Rogers

The series of black and white photos, anonymous portraits, held my gaze because of their sensitivity and intimacy. The work of Dr. Terry Rogers of Shoreline, Washington, they reminded me of images seen in Life magazine or National Geographic. Expressive eyes of total strangers connected with mine. Their faces seem oddly familiar, because they could belong to co-workers, friends, family members, or neighbors. As fellow humans, they were not so different from me, except for one thing. Every one of them is homeless.

Many of us lucky enough to live in better circumstances, at least for now, quickly assume most homeless people are criminals, drug addicts, drunks, or mentally ill. Certainly some are (as are some people who live in houses). But negative stereotypes make life as as a homeless person even more difficult for all the other who are not. I think of the young married couple I met who spent all there money to come to Seattle for promised jobs that did not materialize. Consider the family that could not pay their rent, the mother with children escaping domestic violence, the teenager who ran away for good reason, the old man, the veteran whose life fell apart, the sick and disabled without help. Yet they are, for the most part, treated as invisible human beings. Many people avoid eye contact or cross the street rather than to have any conversation. Automatic condemnation helps to justify a lack of caring or assistance.

Photo by Terry Rogers

Rogers, a retired Seattle area specialist in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, is a member of Saint Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Shoreline, one of many Northwest churches effectively helping the homeless. When Saint Dunstan’s hosted a “tent city,” Rogers had the opportunity to meet some of the camp’s residents. I asked him to share his story of taking these photos and what the experience taught him.

Good Life Northwest: Please tell me about your church's efforts to help the homeless.

Rogers: This is about the third time we’ve hosted a tent city group. They usually come for about a three-month period of time. We have some undeveloped land to the east of the church on the property, so it works out pretty well for them to use this as a site.

Photo by Terry Rogers


GLN: You titled the collection of photos “United We Stand.” What does that name represent? 

Rogers: It’s the name of this group. They named themselves and present themselves this way. This is an organized group of people who have gotten together to be an entity. There are various kinds of homeless camps. There are the sort of ad hoc spontaneous ones that just develop, but then there are groups that actually get together and support each other and try to do things that help them get along and prevail.  

GLN: How many individuals are in this group, and have you hosted them before?

Rogers: I think we have about 30. It varies in number, but it’s between 30 and 35 people. This is the first time we have hosted this particular group. 

Photo by Terry Rogers
GLN: How did this opportunity to photograph the group members arise? 

Rogers: I was curious about wanting to do a project like this, so I approached the minister, the Rev. David Marshall, and asked if he thought it would be an appropriate thing to do. He said, “Yes. Just go down and talk with them.” So I did. 

They have sort of a central tent where they administer, or govern, their entity. I just went down and introduced myself, told them what I wanted to do. I wanted to know if anyone was interested in having a portrait taken. I would provide an 8½ x 11 copy for anyone who wanted that to occur.         

Photo by Terry Rogers
He [the group’s spokesman] said, “Sounds good. Let me bring you to our all-member meeting then.” They meet every Monday afternoon or evening. I’d left him my number and he called me on Tuesday and said, “We have some folks, so let’s do it.” 

There were probably five people that I took photos of initially. I printed them up and brought them back. Then a couple of days later, I got a call asking if I would come back and do some more. So that’s how it all transpired.

Photo by Terry Rogers
GLN: What comments did you receive from them, before, during, or after?

Rogers: Honestly, I haven’t heard too much. They were pleased. They’d say “Thank you.” It was good to hear that. I delivered them and basically that was it. 

I’ve only had some discussion with two or three of them who thanked me and said, “This is really good. I’m pleased to have it.” There was one couple, the black couple with their heads together, smiling…she actually used to model when she lived in the Los Angeles area. She wanted to have some more pictures taken, so I said “Sure. Let’s go ahead and do it.”


Photo by Terry Rogers
GLN: Have you heard some stories from these folks, about how they ended up homeless?

Rogers: When they came, I’d say “What part of the country are you from? What sort of work have you done? How’d you end up in Seattle?” That sort of thing. They come from various parts of the country — Tennessee, Kentucky, California, Montana, Minnesota—and they all have stories. “I used to do construction,” or “I’ve been injured.” One guy shattered his leg, and he lost his house. He had a couple of kids he hasn’t seen. The stories just go on and on. One guy owned a store that he lost because of the financial crisis. They all have their stories. Any of us could get into a situation like that. 

 Photo by Terry Rogers
The other thing our church does is sponsor a community dinner every Tuesday night and it has grown considerably. It’s open to anyone, actually, but a lot of people in the community, particularly the homeless and downtrodden, know about it. We feed 300 plus people every Tuesday night. Over the time that this has been going on now, we’ve served over 31,000 meals. It’s all done volunteer. It’s all done with food that’s obtained as day-old food or food that was going to be thrown out from Safeway. The protein (meat) does need to be purchased, but the money is donated.The link that we have is the guy who actually does the cooking. He’s a member of our church, and he works for Safeway. That’s what has kept this going as another part of the support for this population of people. 

Our pastor, David Marshall, wrote a guest editorial in the Seattle Times within the last three months. It basically says, we can solve hunger. If one tiny church in North Seattle can do this with the excess food from one Safeway, just think what could be done across the community.

[Note: According to the church’s website, Saint Dunstan's serves about 100 on the premises and deliver food to about 200 more in other camps. After our interview, Rogers sent an email with an example situation: "Tonight we served 117 dinners, with at least 200 more people being served at their tent gatherings. Out of pocket expenses for tonight’s meal were $275, so 300 people ate a great meal (and it was good) for less than a dollar per head. And lots of volunteer help."]

Photo by Terry Rogers

GLN: What is the reaction from people living in the neighborhood? Are any of them pitching in to help, or is it just the congregation?

Rogers: We get various people who help. Initially, the neighbors were a little wary of embracing this notion, but as it turns out, [neighborhood crime did not increase at all]. They police themselves very well. There are no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises, which is their rule. They are very careful about being good citizens. They keep the place tidy and are proud of and responsible for their actions and for their community. I think our surrounding neighbors have accepted the fact that this is a good thing to do and it has not hurt them in any way. (Please read this article from the Seattle Times — "Homeless camp gets a bad rap from Ballardites")

Photo by Terry Rogers

GLN: Your photos are beautiful.

Rogers: Thank you. I enjoy doing it, to be able to connect and have someone trust you enough for them to show who they really are is very gratifying.

GLN: What did you take away from this? What was the most profound aspect of the experience?

Rogers: Everybody has a story. We all have stories. Some of our stories lead to things we have hoped for in the past, and some lead to things we had not hoped for. In spite of all that, every one of the people has pride. That sense of self-worth was pretty impressive for me. These are people who are our brothers and sisters, people, just like us. At the very least, respect them. And say hello. Reach out. They would enjoy it, and you will be rewarded by it.

FOR INFORMATION ON RESOURCES, CAMPS, ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED, AND HOW YOU CAN HELP PLEASE VISIT THE WEBSITE OF GREATER SEATTLE CARES.