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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, 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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