Saturday, July 31, 2010

High finance, romance mingle perfectly

"Withering Heights" at Breeders Theater

Published in The News Tribune, July 30, 2010
Brenan Grant as Eustace Euler, photo by Michael Brunk courtesy of Breeders Theater. 
Attending plays at Breeders Theater in Burien is an experience so unique that I tell everyone they must do it at least once. I even tell friends in Olympia that it is well worth the 55-mile drive.

So what’s so unique about Breeders Theater? For starters, the stage is in the E.B. Foote Winery and the actors perform between barrels of wine.  Wine tastings are offered before the show, during intermission and after the show – all included in the price of admission. And then there is the oddity that every play they do is written by the same madcap writer, theater founder T.M. Sell, whose talent for parody, plot structure and outlandish dialogue is unparalleled.

Their most recent production is “Withering Heights,” a send-up of Victorian romance novels or, as Sell has an actor explain it in an introductory speech at the start of act 2, Victorian chick lit. Simultaneously, it is satiric look at the world of high finance that is highly relevant in this time of financial meltdown and particularly understood by Sell who teaches economics, political science and journalism at Highline College when he is not writing plays. The bankers Kneckerbreaker (Eric Hartley) and Sponge (Doug Knoop) can easily be seen as CEOs of too-big-to-fail institutions like AIG and Chase.

“I like Victorian romance novels, but they’re also kind of funny,” Sell states in the program. “And although Jane Austen didn’t write ‘Wuthering Heights’ (Emily Bronte did), I liked the title.”

It’s the story of Miss Clarity Fugues (Adrienne Grieco), a poor young woman who inherits a fortune (on paper), is cruelly manipulated by the unscrupulous bankers, and searches for love among high society gentlemen. Publicity materials for the play call it “Jane Austin meets J.P. Morgan,” and I would add to that “meets ‘Airplane’” due to the wild use of puns and double entendre and other language play, not to mention name dropping and name confusion such as clever mention of just about every Victorian novel ever written and about 40 silly misconstructions of the name “Clarity.”

The acting is outstanding, and so is the singing by the Jane Austen City Limits Quartet comprised of J. Howard Boyd, Knoop, Megan Krongstadt and Nancy Warren, the latter of whom is also the musical director and pianist.

Grieco seems natural and at ease in whatever role she plays. As Miss Clarity she is the one stable factor around which all the madness converges. She conveys confusion, anger, a kind of gee-wiz innocence with very subtle changes of expression.

Knoop and Hartley play the bankers as snobbish and boorish and loud. They’re like big balloons of bluster that you’re dying to burst, and when they do go bust they do it with great tears of self-pity. These two great actors are clearly having fun with outsized characters.

Two young actors who are beginning to make their mark in area theater are Brenan Grant as Eustace, the misunderstood young gentleman who is not allowed to speak more than a word or two by his supposed friends and acquaintances, and David Roby as the boorish Janeway, who prides himself on never thinking while thinking a lot about not thinking.

Amber Rack plays Darcy effectively with exaggerated silliness and lots of giggles. Laura Smith does a good job of playing a very complex character with the funny name of Fedora Chapeau (everyone calls her Hattie, and she wears a succession of hats), who is disdainful and cynical, and perhaps the only intelligent character in the play.

For an enjoyable evening out, I recommend “Withering Heights” at Breeders Theater. Warning: bring an extra shirt or jacket because the air condition is kept on high, and bring an extra cushion because the folding chairs are rather hard.

WHEN: 7 p.m.Saturday, July 31 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1, wine tastings start half hour before show time.

WHERE: E.B. Foote Winery, 127-B S.W. 153rd Street, Burien
TICKETS: $20 available at the winery and at Corky Cellars, 22511 Marine View Drive, Des Moines 206-824-9462
INFORMATION: 206-242-3852

No comments: