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Saturday, May 30, 2015


Even while the U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay draws huge crowds to the greater Tacoma, Washington, area, the city's Broadway Center for the Performing Arts downtown will offer a different type of entertainment—the perfect afternoon or date night choice for golfers and non-golfers alike. Whether you call it stand-up comedy, or call it a play, the one-man show titled Defending the Caveman must certainly be called a sensational success. It has delighted audiences in 45 countries, has been translated into 18 languages, and is currently playing in 150 cities around the world. Luckily, Tacoma will become one of them on June 18, 2015,  when it opens at Theatre on the Square, one of four theaters at the Broadway Center. It will run Thursday, June 18, through Sunday, June 21, with a total of five performances.*

Comedian Rob Becker wrote this show after three years of research into not only prehistory, but also psychology, anthropology, sociology, and mythology. What he learned from studying all those “...ologies,” combined with life experience, added up to a hilarious look at the dramatic and undeniable differences between men and women and the consequential misunderstandings that affect their relationships. Defending the Caveman now ranks as the longest-running solo play on Broadway. After a quarter of a century, there is no sign of the laughter dying down. 

It takes a whole tribe of cavemen to keep a show playing worldwide. One of six currently performing this role in the United States is actor and funny guy John Venable, who will be “The Caveman” for Tacoma audiences during the upcoming run. This native of Dallas, Texas, who now lives in Los Angeles, was recently performing in this role in Las Vegas, which is where he was when Good Life Northwest connected with him by telephone for this interview.

John Venable, starring in "Defending the Caveman" Photo provided by Broadway Center for the Performing Arts

Candace Brown, for Good Life Northwest: The U.S. Open will certainly be well attended here in the Northwest, but for those who don’t have tickets or prefer something else, how is this show a nice alternative to the golf tournament?

John Venable: I guarantee that you don’t have to be quiet and you don’t have to do a polite golfers’ clap. You can laugh as loud as you want!

GLN: What can people expect from a show called Defending the Caveman?

Venable: The show is a lot about how we have changed but, then again, really haven’t changed. It’s about how our wiring dates all the way back to the cave times, how we’ve evolved to be completely different from from one another. Nowadays, we can’t understand one another. 

People come to the show with a certain expectation—and I’m not really sure what that is from person to person—but they leave with something different than what they expected. A lot of women will come thinking, “This is going to be a show where they’re bashing women the entire time,” and it’s not that at all. It actually is a very balanced look at men and women. Both leave with a better understanding of the opposite sex. 

GLN: Do you think this show could actually help relationships?

Venable: Absolutely! It’s akin to marriage counseling, but you come in and you get to laugh! Whether you are a husband and wife, or a boyfriend and girlfriend, or just somebody who is considering getting into a relationship—maybe you’re dating somebody and it’s going that way—you’re going to come away with a better understanding of maybe how to act or how to react to things that your significant other does, things that you might not understand because of the way you’re wired. 

GLN: Do you agree that there is nothing funnier than real life?

Venable: Yeah. If we can stand back and look objectively at stuff that causes problems in relationships, and actually laugh at it, that can help improve understanding more than sitting someone down and talking in a serious way. Instead of saying, “Here’s why your relationship isn’t working,” you can get that information in a different format. You don’t even realize you’re getting that information. If you’re just sitting back and listening to a guy telling you a story, hey, all the better. 

Beyond just being a funny and entertaining show, it can potentially help you out. We’re not marriage counselors, by any stretch of the imagination, but people come out of it at the end having more of an appreciation for their spouse or significant other than they did when they went in. 

GLN: That must be rewarding. 

Venable: Yeah, it’s really cool. After the show, I’ll go stand out front, regardless of where the show is playing, and shake hands with people and talk to them on their way out. Every time, several people will say, “You nailed so many things right on the head! It’s like you’ve had cameras in our house and you’ve been watching us. It’s crazy how much that parallels our lives.” They say, “Now I get why he does those things.” and “Now I get why she does those things.”

John Venable, starring in "Defending the Caveman" Photo provided by Broadway Center for the Performing Arts

GLN: It’s almost like men and women are people from different countries. If we could apply those principles to world peace we might have some hope 

Venable: That’s one of the things I come out and say. Instead of us thinking of men being this one thing, how about if we just think of them as being different. In fact, how about if we think of men and women as being two completely different cultures, with different customs, different histories, and different languages? 

GLN: Does it follow a strict script? Is there room to ad-lib? 

Venable: Yes and yes. It absolutely follows a strict script. Well, I wouldn’t say "strict.” There are six of us who do the show, and everyone has their own little nuances, maybe just a little turn of a phrase on a joke that’s already there, and you figure out a way to make it work better for you as an actor or just for you as the person you are on stage. None of us are exactly like Rob or exactly like one another. We’re given the freedom to put our own little spin on things. As much as it is stand up comedy and written by a standup comic, it’s also pretty much a play. It’s kind of a blend of the two. 

As far as ad-libbing goes, this is the type of show where we invite people to say things to us. I’ll ask questions of the audience and expect a response. Because we set that kind of precedence, people will sometimes just yell things out. You can’t ignore that, especially when you think, “Here’s a good opportunity for a joke.”

GLN: Why would this make the perfect date night? Obviously there’s the aspect of gaining understanding and appreciation for each other, but are there other reasons? 

Venable: Men in general are not theatergoers as much as women are. A lot of times, when men come to the theater it’s because their wife has insisted that they go. But this is a show men actually like! Guys who are not fans of the theater at all, will come away saying, “Man, that was a good one!” 

I think that’s probably because it plays more like standup comedy and because it’s so relatable. That’s why the show has lasted as long as it has. Next year is the 25th anniversary of the show. It has the longevity because people see themselves in what we’re talking about. I guarantee that you will have something to grab onto, that you will see yourself and your relationship in some part of what I’m talking about. They are just universal truths.

John Venable, starring in "Defending the Caveman." Photo provided by Broadway Center for the Performing Arts

GLN: That brings me to my most important question. No kidding. Do you talk about men “channel surfing” when they watch TV?

Venable: Absolutely! That’s definitely one of the key differences, the way we handle the TV remote. I don’t want to give it away, but that’s one of the sections that give you women credit.

GLN: I can’t wait to see it. Have you ever been to Tacoma before?

Venable: No. I’m very excited to come to Washington. I’ve never been in Washington or Oregon. I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

GLN: It certainly is! 

*Performances times for this June 2015 production of Defending the Caveman, at Theatre on the Square in Tacoma, Washington, are:

Thursday, June 18 — 7:30 p.m
Friday, June 19 — 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 20 — 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 21 — 3 p.m.

Tickets are priced at $19, $36, and $49 and are on sale now. For tickets, please call (253) 591-5894 or (toll free) 1-800-291-7593. You can also order tickets online through this link. Don't delay!

The theatre is located at 901 Broadway, Tacoma, WA, USA, 98402 

Link to map, directions and parking information is here.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"BETWEEN SEA AND SKY" glass sculpture by Michelle Gutlove inspires Dance Theatre Northwest's new ballet at public unveiling May 30th

Gregory Peloquin and Amelia Arial in DTNW's "Between Sea and Sky"
 — photo by Maks 

The Atrium at the entrance to the Civic/Library Building in University Place, Washington, is already one of my favorite public spaces in the Northwest, and it is about to become even more beautiful. The pleasant daylight filling this large enclosure will soon shine through and reflect from a hanging glass sculpture, created by renowned artist Michele Gutlove from hand blown glass, with each piece featuring unique coloring and form. 

The artwork's title, "Between Sea and Sky," is also the name of a new ballet created by Melanie Kirk-Stauffer, artistic director of Dance Theatre Northwest and commissioned by the local arts advocacy organization called UP for Arts for the dedication of this installation. The ballet will be presented at 10 a.m. on May 30th, during the public unveiling of the artwork, at the University Place Atrium, located at 3609 Market Place, University Place, WA. 

Kirk-Stauffer is a longtime resident of University Place, known not only for her own impressive background as a dancer, but also for her choreography, teaching abilities, nurturing of students, and her outreach to the community. In November of 2014, the City of University Place recognized Dance Theatre Northwest for “Artistic Excellence and Lasting Contribution to the community." This multi-talented artist also designed all the costumes, each as unique as the pieces of glass visitors will see suspended from the ceiling. Like the glass, they will reflect the marine blues and verdant greens of the natural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. 

L to R: Amelia Arial, Lauren Trodahl, Oceana Thunder, and Allison Sakharov
Photo by Maks Sakharov
Kirk-Stauffer says she is, "... honored to be able to create a ballet that celebrates this new Destination Art piece that will permanently enhance our civic center." 

The "Between Sea and Sky" ballet, in three parts, will feature 
Amelia Arial, Gregory Peloquin, Oceana Thunder, Lauren Trodahl, and Allison Zakharov dancing to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture as well as music by Evegeny Svetlanov and Peter Tchaikovsky. Costumes, choreography, and music, will all express the essence of our region's beauty. This public event is free and everyone is welcome. It lasts from 10 a.m. until 11:30. Please come!

All cast members (in alphabetical order) : Neal Alexander, Amelia Arial, Tremar Baptiste, Philandra Eargle, Olivia Estes, Madeline Ewer, Joan Fort, Nadia Niva, Gregory Peloquin, Solana Sartain, Olivia Stephen-Jordan, Oceana Thunder, Lauren Trodahl, Fancy Williamson, Emma Young, Allison Zakharov
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Monday, May 11, 2015


I recently had the fun of interviewing Evan Woltz, an actor in Jasper in Deadland, the new pop/rock musical written by Ryan Scott Oliver. The show is creating a sensation at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, where it plays through May 24, 2015. The story’s teenaged protagonist, Jasper (Matt Doyle), must travel through the underworld in search of his beloved friend, and as the theater’s press release says, he meets “both gods and monsters” during this intense and exciting journey. For Woltz, being part of this production is also an exciting journey.  

Woltz plays the part of Pluto, ruler of the underworld, as well as other roles. He is thrilled to make debut at The 5th Avenue with this show, as was evident when we spoke prior to its opening. He already has impressive theater credits, including the New York premier of Thankskilling the Musical with the NY Festival of the Offensive, a regional production of Peter Pan with Arizona Broadway Theatre, and numerous Seattle productions, including The Yellow Wood, and A New Brain with Contemporary Classics; Jerry Springer: the Opera, Spring Awakening, and Full Monty with Balagan Theatre; and Bat Boy the Musical, and Gutenberg! The Musical! with Artswest.

Broadway's Matt Doyle will star as Jasper in the new pop/rock musical Jasper in Deadland.
Photo Credit: Matt Murphy

Candace Brown for Good Life Northwest: What was it about this musical that attracted you and made you want to audition?

Evan Woltz: What drew me to it, and made me stop and take notice, was who was involved and what the show was. Brandon Ivie, the director, is from the Seattle area, and is very good about getting new works done in Seattle. He works in theatre in both Seattle and New York, and has built a reputation in Seattle for bringing new works and new composers to light. I’ve worked with him on at least four shows now, and he’s always been a director I’ve really liked—very creative, and able to bring a lot of talent into the room and get everyone to do their best work.

The show itself is the other reason. Getting to help create a new show at the 5th on a stage this size, with an audience this size, is so exciting to me. I think that Seattle deserves new work more often, on all levels of stage. Having messages that speak to a younger audience and ultimately bring new people into the theatre, is all good. 

Also, a lot of the artistic production team is from New York, and when we do things like this, I think it shows the East coast that the talent level is definitely here, that Seattle is comparable to the best cities in the country as a resource for theatre talent. Whether it comes to holding auditions or developing new works, Seattle should absolutely be one of the first cities that come to people’s minds.  

Brown: What about the story itself, the mythology aspect? Was that part of the attraction? 

Woltz: For me personally, I love seeing an old Greek myth reworked through modern storytelling. I didn’t know too much about the show when I came to audition. I knew it was character driven, not necessarily traditional roles, and with lot of very interesting characters. With the exception of the main three—the biggest villain, the hero, and the hero’s love interest—everybody else is playing at least three or four different characters throughout the show, with so many different approaches. That’s very much in the vein of what I enjoy, being able to play several weird and unique characters that people will remember. That’s appealing to me. And it’s a rock musical, and that also is very much in my wheelhouse.

Brown: You are playing Pluto, the king of the underworld, and who else? 

Woltz: I’m playing a mad doctor in the underworld, actually a dead doctor named Dr. Esposito. He’s a character who sort of relays the plot. As Jasper wanders through Deadland, if he touches you, you remember flashes of your life, so Jasper becomes kind of a major celebrity in the underworld, connecting people to the lives they left behind. I also play other minor characters, a Russian bouncer and other denizens of Deadland.

Brown: Promotional material for this musical refers to it as “thrilling.” I want to know why you think it’s thrilling. 

Woltz: The first thing that comes to mind is the set. It’s moving and it’s beautiful. It’s quite a bit different from anything that’s been on the 5th Avenue stage before in that it’s not that traditional sort of set where things fly in an out and backdrops are dropped in and off from the side, and pieces of furniture come on. It’s more like one gigantic art installation that is constantly morphing to fit the scene. It’s full of color, full of life. It moves and feels organic and alive, kind of like we’re trying to make Deadland be. Every element of it is totally thrilling. It’s very cool.

Brown: What other aspects do you believe would thrill people? 

Woltz: I would definitely say the music is very thrilling. All of the characters work. As far as the way it’s being approached, it’s sort of dark, but exciting and electric. Ryan Scott Oliver, who wrote the music for the show, has a bit of a dark side in his writing and it’s neat to see something like that thrown up on the stage. And our fantastic choreographer Lorin Latarro is working relentlessly to give every moment in this show the exciting energy and movement this world deserves. Her eye for detail is amazing. Everything really sets the mood in the show.

For the actors, part of what’s thrilling is that the show is still changing, being written and rewritten, and made more focused. We’re still work shopping it right now and we will be for the first two weeks of performance, sort of crafting it as we go.  Things change every day, so it’s really exciting for us. We have a whole team of people working with the creators, Ryan and Hunter Foster, on the script side and the music side, giving us updated pages of script and score, sometimes twice a day.

Brown: What are you enjoying most about this experience of working at The 5th Avenue and with the people there?  

Woltz: The group of people they have pulled in for this cast make it a pleasure. Brandon Ivie, the director, told us at the beginning of the production, that the reason he picked everybody he picked—beside the fact that everybody they chose had an awesome audition—is that we are all team players. That has proven to be the case. There are no egos in the room. Fourteen actors on stage and all of them, the folks from New York, the local folks, have been wonderful. They are incredibly talented and committed, with endless amounts of energy. There is a lot of care and respect in the room. 

So the level of professionalism, the amount of exciting and interesting ideas from the design team – the ridiculously amazing and provocative costumes by our costume designer Pete Rush and his team – have been top level, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And you can tell how excited all the production team is. I talked about the set, created by our designer Jason Sherwood, and they are very excited about the set. And Robert Aguilar is one of the best lighting designers here in Seattle. When they presented the entire idea for what was going to be on stage—you can’t just have the set designer on stage explaining everything—they were basically taking turns on their PowerPoint presentation, showing everybody every aspect at once, because the lighting, the sound, the set design and the costumes, everything kind of holds hands and works together. Once again, the level of connectedness is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. 

Brown: It sounds like it’s going to be a sure winner. 

Woltz: This is a totally exciting show. Usually, I’m pretty cautious all the way through a production rehearsal, right up until the last minute when I see what the product is going to look like. I’m usually pretty nervous about inviting a bunch of people and telling them it’s going to be a good time, for sure. But this one, absolutely. All the way through, from the beginning until now, I’ve been nothing but excited about getting into this show and showing it to people. It’s been wonderful.

Brown: You’re making me excited to see it. 

Woltz: I think new works could happen 150% more and it still wouldn’t be enough. The fact that it’s happening at the 5th Ave is fantastic. Seattle is very lucky. I think every time something like that goes well, it just drives more eyes toward Seattle, which is the most important thing.

Brown: We happened to do this interview on your 34th birthday, and I am thinking of all the exciting years ahead of you. I know you recently made a major decision about your own life’s journey.

Woltz: This is the one year anniversary of me quitting my day job to do art full time. It has been an awesome blessing.


Note: Jasper in Deadland is rated PG-13 because of adult themes and some instances of language and references unsuitable for children. Please read the content guidelines here.

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Friday, May 1, 2015


John Aylward and Brandon O'Neill as Big Daddy and Brick
Photo: Chris Bennion
If “Big Daddy,” the profane and crude, but truthful, patriarch of the wealthy southern family in the play  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, actually existed, he would no doubt approve of my need to "tell it like it is" in this review. He never held back on his opinions. A production of this Tennessee Williams play runs April 17-May 17, 2015 at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre in Seattledirected by Kurt Beattie. The best thing about it is actor John Aylward's gutsy, powerful performance in the "Big Daddy" role. He gives this show some fine dramatic moments when little else does. 

Imagine a soap opera set in the Mississippi delta in the 1950s. On Big Daddy’s birthday, his eldest son and two daughters-in-law try too hard to win his favor, knowing what he himself does not yet know, that he is dying of cancer and will soon leave behind his 28,000-acre estate. The eldest son, bland and boring Gooper (Charles Leggett) and Gooper’s overly talkative and once-again-pregnant wife Mae (Morgan Rowe) have produced a next generation of annoying children to carry on the family name, while the younger, favorite son, Brick (Brandon O’Neill), a former star athlete, and his wife, Maggie (Laura Griffith) have not. It’s difficult to make babies when you don’t have sex. 

Brandon O'Neill as Brick Solo with Drink
Photo: Chris Bennion 
They don’t have sex, because Brick is an alcoholic who has turned his back on the family dramas and the marital bed. He just can’t quit mourning the death of his best and one true friend, whom his wife believes was his lover. Whether or not this was true remains a mystery. He denies it, both to himself and to her, and also to his father who, rough as he is, turns out to be far more open-minded and accepting than one might expect, especially during the 1950s. 

“Why is it so damn hard for people to talk?” Big Daddy asks Brick, although he seems to be asking the universe instead. His question expresses one of the play’s main ideas—that honest and genuine communication is often rare or impossible in families. The irony though, is that the very man who asks the question never stops talking long enough to let his son have a chance to open up to him. Brick’s best attempt is when he exclaims, “We’ve always just talked around things!” None of this leads anywhere. 

Maggie held up by a child        Photo: Chris Bennion
I grew frustrated with characters who, caught up in their own denial and self-absorption, never seem to change, grow, or learn. Where is the journey, the quest, the lesson? Obviously, Williams wrote this out of his own pain. Like this troubled family, he pulled the little bead chain on the attic light bulb to reveal all the cobwebs and broken, dusty things families hide but will never discard. Unfortunately, no one deals with the mess, leaving us in limbo without hope or satisfaction.

I kept waiting for the real Brick to emerge, but soon saw, and became bored with, the sameness of his monotone talk and behavior. Although basically drunk throughout the entire play, O’Neill did not act drunk enough or sober enough to thoroughly convince me of either state. He became emotional only briefly with his wife and again when he tangled with his father, in the second act. Brick’s scenes with Maggie lacked the chemistry that could have created a delicious tension. These characters were each victims, in their own way, but the actors portraying them did not make them win my sympathies.

In true soap opera fashion, unsatisfied sexual desire keeps company with resentment, jealousy, manipulation, fatal illness, competition, and, most of all, deception, creating a family so dysfunctional it will make most people relieved to know their own is not as bad. For three hours, the play examines all the reasons these people are miserable. It makes you laugh at times, possibly squirm at other times, care about some characters (but not much), despise others, and feel compassion, so is moderately successful in those ways. 

Laura Griffith solo on the bed         Photo: Chris Bennion 

The “Cat” herself, Maggie, has an impressive number of lines to say in the first act, as she nervously paces around the bedroom, dressed only in a slip. Her physical acting was good, but I wanted Griffith to s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n her lines, take an occasional breath, and deliver them with a pacing and style that could seduce, not pummel. My husband compared it to a blues record played at the wrong speed, with the words all right but the timing all wrong. Sure, she was frustrated and upset, wanted to make a point, relentlessly campaigning to get her husband back in her bed, both for her own satisfaction and to produce a child. But Griffith’s delivery did not match her sultry appearance and reminded me of something I’ve heard men say—that even the sexiest looking woman can be a turn-off if she never shuts up. 

The audience loved to laugh out loud at Big Daddy’s wife, Big Mama (Marianne Owen), a woman who seemed dressed and directed purposely to remind you of Edith Bunker in the television show “All in the Family” but far less intelligent. Worse than Archie’s treatment of Edith, Big Daddy’s distain for his wife implies a deeper issue than her weight and aging appearance (no worse than his own) and her admittedly irritating manner. Why she loves him, and she truly does, is a mystery, but her heartache over his looming death is real. 

Gooper and Mae, once they know the old man is dying, waste no time trying to take control and rob Big Mama of what little power she has. Owen made me feel compassion for her character, revealing a woman with complex emotions and loyalties. Owen excelled in the emotional scene where Big Mama learns the truth about her husband’s health. It bothered me that so many others in the audience seemed to see her only as laughable.

 Morgan Rowe and Charles Leggett              Photo: Chris Bennion 

Charles Leggett did well enough in his role of Gooper, as did Morgan Rowe as Mae, but neither impressed me as much as they both have in other plays. As despicable as their characters were, they still served to remind us of some ugly truths—parents can and do play favorites, with devastating affect, and every family has someone waiting to collect an inheritance. 

The staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at ACT has historical significance in that ACT presented this play during its first season, 50 years ago. Director Kurt Beattie greeted the audience on opening night and mentioned that he made his debut as a professional actor there in 1975. He called the play “an enduring American classic.” So it seems, but enduring the production I saw was a classic case of going into something expecting and wanting to love it, like I do most plays at ACT, but never reaching that state. In spite a proven old recipe, this piece of southern cornbread just wasn’t hot enough to melt my butter.