Friday, August 27, 2010

Critic's Choice- Best of the South Sound Community Theater

Published in The News Tribune / The Olympian, Aug. 27, 2010

My selections for Critic’s Choice of the best in community theater in South Puget Sound are selected from performances I have reviewed in this column during the 2009-2010 theater season. My point in doing this is to acknowledge those who are commendable without making it into a winner-takes-all competition, so in many categories I have chosen more than one person or show.
Best Actor in a Musical (male): Bill Bland as Fats Waller and other characters in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Centerstage.
Best Actor in a Musical (female): Caitlin Frances as Ellie in “Carl Sagan’s Contact” at Centerstage.
Best Direction of a Musical: Jon Douglas Rake for “All Shook Up” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Best Musical: “Annie” at Capital Playhouse followed closely by two versions of the same play, “Rent” at both Tacoma Musical Playhouse and Capital Playhouse – two vastly different productions with different casts and directors, but both emotionally engrossing and musically rocking.
Best Dramatic Actor (male): Elliot Weiner as Morrie Schwartz in “Tuesdays with Morrie” at Lakewood Playhouse.
Best Dramatic Actor (female): For making complexity of characterization seem easy, Raychel A. Wagner as Callie in “Stop Kiss” by Prodigal Sun Productions; for mind-bending physicality, Helen Harvester as Abby in “Mating Dance of the Werewolf” at Harlequin Productions.
Best Direction of a Drama: Brian Tyrrell for “Rabbit Hole” at Harlequin Productions.
Best Drama: “Rabbit Hole” at Harlequin Productions.
Best Comic Actor (male): Aaron Earle Hobbes as various Shakespearean characters in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Olympia Little Theatre.
Best Comic Actor (female): This one goes to two actors from Capital Playhouse shows, Stephanie C. Nace as Sister Mary Amnesia in “Nunsense” and Jennie May Donnell as Mrs. Hannigan in “Annie.”
Best Duo in a Comedy: Marcus Walker and Scott Campbell for “A Tuna Christmas” at Lakewood Playhouse and Tacoma Little Theatre. Note: I picked this same duo last year for “Greater Tuna” at Lakewood Playhouse.
Best Comedy: “Noises Off” at Tacoma Little Theatre and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Olympia Little Theatre.
Best New Play: “Carl Sagan’s Contact” at Centerstage, written by Alan Bryce with music by Peter Sipos and lyrics by Amy Engelhardt. Directed by Alan Bryce.
Best Supporting Actor: Robert McConkey in a dual role as Stephen Hawking and Jesus in “End Days” at Harlequin Productions.
Best Youth Actor: Kat Christensen as Alice in “You Can’t Take It With You” and as Becky Thatcher in “Tom Sawyer,” both at Lakewood Playhouse.
Best Choreography for a Musical: Richard J. Hinds for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Capital Playhouse.
Best Set Design: Jill Carter for “Rabbit Hole” at Harlequin Productions and, for something entirely different, the multi-talented Bruce Haasl’s great and playful pop-art design for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Capital Playhouse
Best Lighting: Greg Scott for “Fiddler on the Roof” at All Saints Theatrical Repertoire association, Puyallup.
Best Costumes: Audra Merritt for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Capital Playhouse and Diana Scott for “Fiddler on the Roof” at All Saints Theatrical Repertoire Association, Puyallup.
Best Ensemble: “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” with “The 15 Minute Hamlet” at Lakewood Playhouse, produced by The Outfit, the best new community theater in South Sound.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Farewell to Robert McConkey and Paul Purvine, two South Sound stalwarts who are now trying to crack the Big Apple. Their talents on stage and behind the curtains will be missed.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Outstanding Opening

William Quinn’s European Odyssey
Published in the Weekly Volcano Aug. 26, 2010

Pictured, "A Summer Day in St. Tropez," oil on canvas by William Quinn. Photo courtesy Mavi Contemporary Art

Mavi Contemporary Art is Tacoma’s newest gallery. They opened last week with an outstanding exhibition of paintings and sculptures by William Quinn in the beautifully remodeled building that was for so long home to Two Vaults Gallery.

Little known in Tacoma, Quinn has long been successful nationally and even internationally. He has lived and worked in Europe, taught at Washington University in St. Louis, and has shown his work in such prestigious institutions as the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, St. Louis Museum and the High Museum in Atlanta.

Such major recognition doesn’t necessarily mean he is good, but believe me, this guy can paint. His show, European Odyssey, features both paintings and sculptures.

The paintings are abstract with vaguely figurative organic shapes in starkly contrasting colors floating on or seen through open space (backgrounds mostly white or black with other color tents). His balance of shapes in space is dramatic, and his gestural surface markings range from the most delicate to the most bombastic, with intermingling of flat, opaque shapes, lovely transparencies and lines made by drawing into the wet paint to reveal other colors that have been painted over. I see a lot of Robert Motherwell influence in these paintings, especially the ones that use strong black and white contrasts, and hints of Juan Miro.

The Miro look is most evident in the painting used on the show invitation, "A Summer Day in St. Tropez." Strong black, blue and yellow forms can be seen in a kind of organic window at top. Most of the surface is white with yellow accents, and near the bottom is a reclining figure that looks like a harlequin with his head cropped by the left edge of the canvas. This is abstract painting at its best.

Also borrowing from the harlequin theme is a tall totemic statue in carved and painted redwood called "Harlequiness." The beauty in this is the surface decoration with subtle textures and transparencies and a very smooth line made with what appears to be graphite.

All of the sculptures in this show are thin figures that look like a cross between totem poles and Alberto Giacometti’s figures. The forms of his sculptures are not particularly interesting or unique, but the surfaces are fabulous as they are approached as painting in three dimensions.

One of my favorite paintings is "Nuits du Sud," a dramatically dark painting with an imposing figure like an abstract warrior standing under a red moon in a black night. Stories, figures, landscapes and cityscapes are hinted at but never made explicit in these paintings, but their real strength is in Quinn’s use of visual elements.

[Mavi Contemporary Art, European Odyssey, 1-8 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday, through Sept. 12, 502 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.759.6233]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Paradise Theatre's “Music Man” exuberant, a little rough

Published in the Olympian and The News Tribune, Aug. 20, 2010
Pictured from left: James Raasch as Professor Harold Hill, Andrew Knickerbocker as Winthrop and
Krista Curry as Marian in "The Music Man" at Paradise Theatre.Photo by Erin Lund

Meredith Willson’s (((CQ))) “The Music Man” is lighthearted family entertainment loaded with rousing music and clever lyrics. The current production at Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor provides brief moments of wonderful performance but too many moments that are not quite up to snuff. Perusing the cast list in the program I see that most of them have only two or three community theater productions to their credit at most, so professional skill levels are not to be expected, and it shows on some of the smaller numbers and individual acting roles.

Jeff Richards’ direction, set and lighting design are commendable, and Vicki Richards’ costume design is nicely done. Her choreography is outstanding on some of the bigger production numbers involving the full cast – most notably on the opening song, “Rock Island,” the wonderful “Ya Got Trouble” and (best choreographed of all) “Marian the Librarian.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the men of the ensemble on “Rock Island” with its humorous repetition and fast jumps between singers practically jumping all over one another’s lines while rocking in time with the train. Kudos to the cast - the timing on this was excellent.

The rollicking theme song, “76 Trombones” was exuberant, and the opening night audience loved it when they marched throughout the auditorium.

Marcellus (Jeffrey Bassett) and the ensemble were delightful on “Shipoopi).

F. James Raasch in the demanding lead role of Professor Harold Hill was very good. He sings well and deports himself well on stage, commanding the attention the role demands.

Krista Curry as the love interest, Marian Paroo, is a good actor and has a lovely voice, but the choice to sing most of her songs in an operatic style did not work well.

The most enjoyable parts of the play were the songs of the barbershop quartet and the teen dancers. The quartet of James Koop, Howard Knickerbocker, David Smith and Eli Ghorley was outstanding. Their rendition of “Lida Rose” was the epitome of what a good turn-of-the-century barbershop quartet should be.

The teen dancers were athletic and exciting. They are: Gabe Gadbow, Taylor Herbstritt, Devyn Grendell, Christa Knickerbocker, James Knickerbocker, Erin Claflin, Sara Claflin and Sam Elston.

The parts that needed a lot more work were the ballet numbers by the ladies, most notably “Eulalie’s Ballet” and a long scene of people crossing a foot bridge that should have been shortened quite a bit. About the ballet: they were supposed to be bad; that was the intent. But when amateurs mock even more amateurish performers there is a fine line between being funny and appearing ridiculous, and I’m afraid they fell on the wrong side of that line.

It is a long play. Opening night we didn’t get out until after 11 p.m. because they started half an hour late at 8:30 after a period setting ice cream social with cast in costumes and free ice cream (donated by Ben & Jerry’s).

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (Aug. 20-21), 3 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 22)
WHERE: Paradise Theatre, 9911 Burnham Dr. NW, Gig Harbor
TICKETS: $10-$22

Note: My column for next week will be my annual Critic's Choice picks of the best in South Sound theater.

More Artscapes

Intriguing installations on Pacific

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Aug. 19, 2010
photo courtesy Mary Cross

I checked out a few more installations from the Artscapes project starting with "The Blood That Runs Through Us…an Ongoing Dialogue" by Mary Coss, June Sekiguchi and Pamela Hom at 950 Pacific Avenue. It is fabulous. It obliquely addresses the theme of lifecycles, leaving much for the viewer to imagine.

Sometimes artists use the term “installation” to describe their work when “display” would be a more appropriate term. An installation should use all of the space available, should be a unified whole and should invite viewers in. "The Blood That Runs Through Us…" does exactly that. The space consists of a huge room with double picture windows and a smaller connected alcove with a smaller window, and the hanging plaster sculptures and paintings and conduit and ductwork winding throughout the space invites the viewer in to crawl under and step over the continuous all-in-one pieces and immerse themselves in the work.

Of course you can’t actually step in. There is the artificial barrier of the storefront windows keeping you out. But you can wander through in your imagination.

The larger space is filled with white plaster sculptures that are variations on the same pregnant woman. In most versions she is grabbing her crotch or thigh. One version is an angel or cherub with gossamer wings. Similar figures are printed on large banners that hang from the ceiling. Winding throughout are dryer ducts and commercial conduit which serve as unifying elements that make the figures into weird half-human birthing robots. The smaller room continues the theme, but the pregnant women are replaced with slimmer figures whose stomachs are opened to reveal inner workings. All of the figures are connected by the conduit at vital spots.

A press release described the work as a “meditation on family relationships in different cultures,” pointing out that Sekiguchi is Nisei, a second generation Japanese-American; Hom’s father immigrated from China; and Coss is fifth generation removed from her countries of heritage. 

Farther south on Pacific Avenue at Tollefson Plaza one finds works by James Sinding, Alexander Keyes and Janet Marcavage. When I drove by looking for a parking space the three individual works looked like parts of an unfinished construction. 

Along the back of the plaza are three very large and colorful plastic flowers by Marcavage. They’re attractive but more a decorative element than art. If there were enough to line the entire back edge of the plaza they would have greater impact.

Keyes’ sculpture looked like an unfinished construction project when driving by. Up close it looks like a giant blue Tinker Toy creature crawling up the steps. Quite a nice sculpture, actually.

Sinding’s piece also looked unfinished at first, but it’s supposed to be constantly in flux as the public is invited to change it. It is a set of large, colorful letters. You can rearrange them like refrigerator poems. How fun is that!

[Mary Coss, June Sekiguchi and Pamela Hom, 950 Pacific Avenue, through Sept. 27]
[James Sinding, Tollefson Plaza, Pacific Avenue across from Tacoma Art Museum, through Aug. 31]
[Alexander Keyes and Janet Marcavage, Tollefson Plaza, through Sept. 15]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Students do justice to real life sequel

Review “The Laramie Project Ten Years Later”

Published in The News Tribune/The Olympian, Aug. 13, 2010

We see the face of hate, of love and of indifference in the South Puget Sound Community College production of “The Laramie Project Ten Years Later.”

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later. A month after the murder members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play “The Laramie Project.” The characters in the play were citizens of Laramie and Tectonic cast members playing themselves. Every word was taken directly from the transcripts of their interviews.

Ten years later members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to find out what had transpired since they were there, resulting in this new play in which many of the same people talk about those events and changes in attitudes. Significantly included in this update are interviews with the murderers, Aaron McKinney (played by Justin Smith) and Russell Henderson (played by Ben Rushing), and Matthew’s parents Dennis and Judy Shepherd (Craig Donald and Jeanine Kuehn).

This is a particularly challenging play for director Don Welch for a number of reasons: because he is working with a mixed cast of seasoned actors and student actors, most of whom have little or no experience; because there are no sets or props other than a few projected images, risers and a half-dozen chairs, thereby putting everything squarely on the shoulders of the actors; and finally because the issues dealt with are hard issues that audience members may be uncomfortable with: issues of homophobia, cover-up and denial.

The simple arrangement of chairs and the dramatic lighting is highly effective. Credit Christopher Gaston, technical director, light and sound designer.

The actors Welch brought in who have acting experience are outstanding, most notably Karen Johnson who plays five different Laramie residents. Johnson, who usually plays comedy, proves that she has significant dramatic skills.

Kuehn is an anchor of strength in three different roles. She nails the character of Deb Thomsen, a heartless newspaper editor. She is believable as college professor Catherine Connelly, and she inhabits the role of Judy Shepard with heartfelt passion.

Ryan Hobart fills in a number of very different roles with the skill of a much more experienced actor, seamlessly transforming himself from a cowboy feigning indifference to a frustrating and heartbroken friend of Matthew Shepherd among other roles.

The actors playing the two murderers were both excellent, with gestures and voice inflections that brought these men alive. The way Rushing kept looking down at the floor was especially effective, but it made it almost impossible to hear what he was saying. Smith portrayed murderer Aaron McKinney in a truly creepy manner.

Alex Bergman as the priest Father Roger and Kevin McCarthy as cast member Andy Paris recited their lines rather than speaking them in a natural manner. Other actors bobbled lines. Such lapses are forgivable in a student production and do not significantly mar the overall excellence of the play.

This is an emotionally drenching play. It is not easy to watch, but it should be seen. As a friend of Matthew friend (played by K.T. Cox) points out, there is a dichotomy here between “Matthew Shepherd” as myth, folklore and a symbol of our culture, and a very real “Matt,” lost son and friend. This production does justice to both.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 12-15)
WHERE: South Puget Sound Community College Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia
TICKETS: $15 general public, $10 students and staff, available at
INFORMATION: 360-753-8586,

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Concealed and Revealed

The fairer sex by Donald Cole and Francie Allen

Published in the Weekly Volcano, August 12, 2010
Top: "Flowers," by Donald Cole
Bottom: "Odalisque" and "Monkey King Has Visitors" by Francie Allen
Photos courtesy the artists

The Donald Cole and Francie Allen show "Women Concealed and Revealed" at Blue Heron Gallery is worth the drive and the ferry ride to Vashon Island.

I first became aware of Cole a few years back when I reviewed his show at ArtXchange in Seattle for another publication. I was tremendously impressed. Cole is a man that really grasps the art of painting. His images in that show were powerful and interesting in their abstract interpretation of ancient Asian calligraphy and symbolism and the objects he depicted lent themselves beautifully to his manner of manipulating color, shape and surface texture. His work at Blue Heron is not as strong. I get the feeling he was trying with these paintings and drawings to appeal to a wider audience.

Fitting with the theme of the show, these works are peekaboo images of women partially hidden under overall patterns of objects and shapes. One called "Flowers" stands out. There is a woman hiding behind bright flowers and red and blue squiggles of paint. The figure is realistic, the surface pattern looks like a Jasper Johns painting, and the way the two are interwoven with the woman almost vanishing is great.

On the other hand, there is a series called "Snake Woman," each of which pictures a naked woman striding forward in a jungle filled with snakes. These look corny and gimmicky, and the figures are clumsily drawn. There are also some interesting figure studies based on the "Venus of Willendorf" that show a variety of approaches to the same subject, and one wonderfully energetic drawing called "Earth Mother 1" that looks like a Jackson Pollack.

The best of his pictures are multi-layered and satisfying to look at despite the similarity in trickery to Bev Dolittle’s horribly slick and clichéd pictures of horses hidden amongst snow-laden trees.

Allen is a sculptor. She does figures in chicken wire, many of which hang from the ceiling. They are empty, hollow, both literally and metaphorically, and are very graceful, simple and lifelike. Small features such as eyes, noses, knuckles, toes and nipples are either eliminated completely or severely simplified; and yet they are very realistic figures. There is a mysterious and ghostlike quality to these figures that reminds me of George Segal’s pop plaster sculptures.

One of the best is a piece called "Odalisque." It is a simple and beautifully structured reclining figure in which you see a body within a body. Also fascinating are some with multiple figures hanging from wire and bamboo ladders like circus performers. The combination and see-through effect of the chicken wire and the ladders with overlapping figures is quite nice.

The one drawback to Allen’s work is that some of them are too pretty and the dancelike poses are too graceful. It’s like they are echoes of pretty people left behind. They are intriguing, but I wish some of them were echoes of plain people or old people or maybe even fat people.

[Blue Heron, Women Concealed and Revealed, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, through Aug. 26, 19704 Vashon Hwy. SW, Vashon, 206.463.5131]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Now on Kindle

Finally all of my books are available on Kindle for people who prefer their reading matter in an electronic format.

The Backside of Nowhere - Popular movie star David Lawrence goes back home to the sleepy bayou town of Freedom to be with his dying father and is trapped in a house with old enemies and old lovers during a hurricane. - $9.99 Kindle edition, $15 paperback

Imprudent Zeal - Love and betrayal coast-to-coast. A gay man who betrays his lover, a painter who gives up his art to serve the poor, a prostitute who hitch-hikes across the country to start a new life and a gallery owner in Seattle who comes to New York in search of her father and finds love. - $9.99 Kindle edition, $15 paperback

The Wives of Marty Winters - Gay rights activist Selena Winters is shot in the head while giving a speech at the Seattle Pride celebration. She is rushed to the hospital and a blood clot is removed from her brain. Family members gather to wait and see if she will ever regain consciousness. While Selena teeters on the edge of death, family conversations lead back to old conflicts and to memories of Marty's first wife, Maria, and his unreasonable obsession with her. The Wives of Marty Winters is a family saga covering half a century in the lives of Marty and his friends and family members. - $9.99 Kindle edition, $15 paperback

Until the Dawn - Red Warner, a famous artist, vanishes at the height of his career. A childhood friend searches for him and tells the story of his family going back generations. Until the Dawn is a coming of age story, a coming out story, and a story that brings together two worlds: the New York art world of the 1980s and the racial strife of the Deep South in the 1960s. - $9.99 Kindle edition, $15 paperback

As If Art Matters - Critical commentary and reviews of modern and post-modern art from Vincent Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian to the latest video and installation artists such as Bill Viola and Sandy Skoglund, including reviews of many excellent but little known regional artists from Seattle to El Paso. - $5.00 Kindle edition, $10 paperback

Find them all on my page on

Friday, August 6, 2010

May we never forget

Last night we went to South Puget Sound Community College to see “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” I went as a critic; my review will appear in The Olympian and The News Tribune next Friday. I also went as a member of PFLAG, because PFLAG is tabling the event. And I went as one might go to the grave of a loved one because “The Laramie Project” is a memorial to Matthew Shepherd and to all victims of anti-GLBTQ hate crimes, and we lost our son to anti-GLBTQ violence in 1995, three years before Matthew’s death. Our son Bill was 17.

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later. A month after the murder members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play “The Laramie Project.” The “characters” in the play were the actual members of the Tectonic cast talking about their experiences and the citizens of Laramie they interviewed. Every word was taken directly from the transcripts of their interviews.

Ten years later, Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to find out what has happened over the last 10 years, resulting in this new play.

As a critic, I thought the play was too didactic. Kaufman should have edited out much of the lecturing that was done by the Tectonic cast members and the citizens of Laramie. But as a human being living in a world that is still far from safe for people who are not members of the privileged majority – meaning not only gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and transgenders but also racial and ethnic minorities and those whose religion or culture is different than the so-called norm – I believe the lessons implicit in the production are important and the events depicted should never be forgotten. 

It is not my purpose to review the play here. Rather, I want to make a few remarks about the implications of the play. The major questions posed are can Laramie be seen as representative of the whole country – in other words, are they just like us, and have we progressed in our attitude and our laws since Matthew Shepherd’s death. Cast members and the people of Laramie repeatedly bemoaned the fact that after 10 years the federal government had still not passed federal hate crimes legislation that includes GLBTQ persons as a protected class. They pointed out that hate crimes have not lessened but have increased, and like a town full of ostriches a large part of the population of Laramie has embraced a kind of popular cover-up of the crime saying it was a drug-induced robbery gone sour and not a hate crime at all.

Since the play was first presented we have at least made one improvement. Federal hate crime legislation has been enacted into law and signed by President Obama. The bill was named after Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, and dragged to his death. My wife and I were lucky enough to be on the guest list at the White House for the celebration of the signing of the hate crimes law. While there we talked to Matthew Shepherd’s family, his parents, Judy and Dennis, and his brother, Logan. For them as for us the events of more than a decade ago are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. It was a proud and momentous occasion, but not necessarily a signal of major advances in civil rights. There is hope, however. Just this week a federal judge overturned as unconstitutional the dreaded Proposition 8 in California, which outlawed same sex marriage. But the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which does for the nation what Prop 8 did for California, is still the law of the land; gays still cannot serve openly in the U.S. military; hate crimes have not abated in the least, and every time GLBTQ rights have been put to the vote anywhere in the United States the majority of voters have voted against our rights. We still have a long way to go.

The play included an interview with one of the murderers, Aaron McKinney, who complained that after 10 years Judy Shepherd should just "shut the fuck up." Let us hope Judy Shepherd will never shut up.

Comedy fits South Sound's new Outfit Theatre Project just fine

Review “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet”

Published in The News Tribune, Aug. 4, 2010
Pictured: Bryan Bender, left, as Guildenstern and Christian Doyle as Rosencrantz from "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" at Lakewood Playhouse
photo by John Pfaffe

There’s a new theater company in the South Sound. It’s called The Outfit Theatre Project, and it includes some of the best-known actors, directors and designers in the area. The Outfit is affiliated with Lakewood Playhouse and Tacoma Little Theatre. 

"We are already getting the chance to do what we love, what feeds us, with the people who challenge and inspire us the most, and that's why The Outfit was created to begin with,” said Deya Ozburn, the group’s press secretary. “We want to help grow theatre as a voyeur sport, as a more interactive entertainment option then going to a movie on a Friday night. Don't get me wrong, we're nuts for film, it's a beautiful medium, but what we are trying to help the other live theaters accomplish is the survival of the traditions of entertainment reaching back to say the Irish Seanchaí: storytelling in such a way that you feel a part of the action. "

The Outfit is doing Tom Stoppard’s, modern classic “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” at Lakewood Playhouse. As a bonus, “R&G” is preceded by Stoppard’s “The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.”

“The Fifteen Minute Hamlet” is performed in the manner of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” It is an insanely funny condensation of “Hamlet” played for broad laughs. Alex Smith plays the title role with hilariously contorted physicality and includes at least one pratfall that will surely leave him bruised if not crippled. Smith is supported by a madcap ensemble cast, many of whom stay in character for “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.” 

The beauty of doing these two shows together is that the opening15-minute skit makes it much easier for the audience to understand the main play because each play in its surrealistically comic way retells the story of the mad Danish Prince Hamlet. The short version turns Shakespeare’s great tragedy into slapstick comedy, and the larger story turns it into an absurdist investigation of logic and language. Stoppard’s writing is inspired, and as performed under the direction of Erin Chanfrau it is like “My Dinner with Andre” meets the Marx Brothers.

Rosencrantz (Christian Doyle) and Guildenstern (Bryan K. Bender) are dead (or are they?). For that matter, is Rosencrantz really Rosencrantz and is Guildenstern really Guildenstern? They keep calling one another by the other’s names while playing games with words and with the laws of probabilities in a kind of intellectually challenging game of who’s-on-first while replaying (and reversing) their roles in the tragedy of “Hamlet.” Doyle plays Lou Costello to Bender’s Bud Abbott. As in most comedies, the straight man (Bender) does not get the laughs or the accolades, however, in his seriousness and intensity Bender is a superb equal half of the equation. And in typical comic-duo fashion, Doyle gets to play the bumbling fool, and he gets most of the laughs. His facial expressions – mostly variations on open-mouthed befuddlement – are terrific.

Ozburn as The Player, the leader of a traveling theater troupe, is the lynchpin among the large cast of supporting characters. She comes across as strong and confident in the role. Even though her character was written by Stoppard as a man she is often referred to with feminine pronouns (mostly by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who can’t seem to get anything right).

Outstanding in the ensemble cast are Blake York as one of the nameless tragedians and Anjelica Wolf in another gender-bending role as Alfred, the young actor who is forced to dress in drag – in this case a woman playing a male actor playing women’s roles. 

The broad physical comedy and the impeccable timing in this play is a testament to the skills of the director and the actors. Smith, by-the-way, tones down his physical comedy just a tiny bit in "R&G," knowing that the wild slapstick from the opening skit would be too much in the context of the longer more intellectually teasing play, and Bender and Doyle emphasize timing and verbal delivery over physicality – except for in one huge fight scene in which the entire cast goes wild. This scene has to be seen to be believed. While 13 actors (seeming like 31) run, jump and fight in fast synchronized movement two characters rush across the stage carrying a large carriage wheel between them, and Doyle leaps over wheel. The coordination and timing of the movement in this scene is astonishing.

“The Fifteen Minute Hamlet” is pure slapstick that sent the opening night audience into nonstop laughter; “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” is much more challenging and thought provoking, but equally funny.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 15, plus actors’ benefit performance Aug. 7 at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $15-$23
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Window Wonders

Artscapes by Spaceworks by City of Tacoma

Top: "meadow starts with p: Ackawacko meeting" by Andrew Peterson, Angel Brain and Snake Puddin’ in the Woolworth Windows
Center: photo by Joseph Songco
in the Woolworth Windows
Bottom: “The Blood That Runs Through Us…an Ongoing Dialogue” installation at 950 Broadway by Mary Coss, Pam Hom, and June Sekiguchi

photos courtesy Spaceworks Published in the Weekly Volcano Aug. 5, 2010

The Spaceworks program is the kind of thing that’s sure to put Tacoma on the map. You can no longer think of T-town as the stepchild of Seattle when it has things like this — open spaces and empty buildings enlivened with visual art, music and performance art. And not just any old art either, but the kind of art that makes dull and close-minded people scratch their heads and say WTF?

No way can I review all of it in this column.

Let’s start on Broadway with Lisa Kinoshita’s installation in the Woolworth Window. It’s called Jack’s Epitaph. It is a weird kind of stage set wherein an actor could sit behind a desk (I envision either a too-tight suit or in a 10-gallon hat and sporting a big mustache) and tell the story of Jack the domesticated bear who freely roamed the streets of Tacoma until a trigger-happy policeman blew him away. Jack’s head looks down on the desk.

Next comes Gretchen Bennett’s window installation. Some kind of white fabric or skin with black, red, green and yellow stripes is stretched across a wall of black plastic and lighted by red an ambler lights. It resonates with Jack the bear because it is shaped like a bearskin rug, and it is probably very beautiful when lighted at night, but you don’t get that effect in the daylight. Bennett said, “One of the main points of my installation is that I asked Sierra Stinson to install a kit of elements I made, so that the idea of window dressing was intact.”

Carrying on the theme of window dressing, Joseph Songco has installed a set of mysterious photographs of window displays in New York. In each of the high-contrast, dark photos of show windows (clothing stores, a bridal shop, a religious artifact store) there are manikins or dolls partially hidden behind bars or blinds.

The final window is meadow starts with p: Ackawacko meeting by Andrew Peterson, Angel Brain and Snake Puddin’, which is as enigmatic as its title. It’s a maze of threads, drawings and other objects scattered randomly as a tribute to energetic play and childlike creativity. Many of the drawings are by Peterson’s children. The whole thing is playful but very messy

A block away at 906 Broadway are window installations by Ben Hirschkoff, Michelle Acuff and Tory Franklin.

Franklin’s Firebird installation is elegant and magical like an illustrated storybook or Medieval manuscript, with words and images from cut digital vinyl print on cut pvc, vinyl and tyvek (a synthetic material).

Acuff’s window is filled with a filigree of curvilinear forms in what looks to be pink Styrofoam. Standing on the floor behind these is a big blue deer with huge antlers that look like a profusion of tree limbs. The color combinations and similarities between the meandering shapes in the window and the antlers make for a powerful image.

Hirschkoff has constructed a landscape of clouds made of glass and metal pipe — the softest and most ephemeral of forms made from hard industrial materials.

I’ve barely touched on the many works in the program. For more information Google Spaceworks Tacoma or search for them on Facebook.

Note: the installation by Mary Coss, Pam Hom, and June Sekiguchi is not reviewed in this column. I hope to review it and other installations that are a part of this program at a later date.