Friday, March 26, 2010

A subtle approach to tragedy in 'Rabbit Hole'

Life and death: Outstanding writing, acting and directing sets the tone for production

Published in The Olympian and The News Tribune, March 26, 2010
Pictured: Jason Haws as Howie, Megan Kappler as Becca, Melanie Moser as Izzie and Kathy Dorgan as Nat

Imagine invisibility. You sit for months unseen in a corner chair in Howie and Becca Corbett’s living room watching the family wrestle with the unspeakable grief brought about by the loss of a young child.

Four-year-old Danny Corbett has been accidentally killed, and if they’re not careful, their conflicting manners of coming to terms with grief (or avoiding it) may destroy the family.

If this story were a made-for-television movie, or if it were produced by a less-skilled cast and crew, it would be a gut-wrenching drama, but as performed by Harlequin Productions under the able direction of Brian Tyrrell, it is a strangely quiet production. Thus the feeling you are sitting in that chair watching the family.

“Rabbit Hole” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. It was written by David Lindsay-Abaire (“Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo”). Harlequin’s production stars Megan Kappler as Becca and Jason Haws as her husband, Howie; Melanie Moser as Becca’s sister Izzy; Kathy Dorgan as their mother and Peter Beard as Jason, the high school student who accidentally ran down their son.

The set by Jill Carter is the palpably real interior of the Corbett’s living and dining rooms, a kitchen with a fully stocked refrigerator, and Danny’s upstairs bedroom. The details are impeccable, from their snack foods and laundry to the light in Danny’s room and the light cast on Howie’s face from the television only he watches.

In the Broadway production, a revolving set was used. I can’t say for sure because I didn’t see it, but I suspect I would have found that too theatrical. I like that there were no set changes and no dramatic lighting or music at Harlequin.

The only thing remotely theatrical about this production was a little music and dimming of lights for scene changes (lighting by Paul Purvine as nuanced as the acting).

Despite intense arguments between each of the characters and emotional breakdowns by both Howie and Becca, I found myself strangely emotionally detached from the action, perhaps because Lindsay-Abaire’s brilliant dialogue and the cast’s nuanced acting avoided all of the usual tricks of tapping into emotion and simply presented real people in a real situation.

For example, in the opening scene I thought Becca’s words and expressions were out of sync with one another. Her words expressed shock and anger as she calmly folded laundry while bantering with Izzy.

For a few moments, I wondered why she kept folding that damn laundry, and why her actions didn’t fit her words. Gradually, it dawned on me that she had shut off all emotion, and that the clothes she was folding belonged to her dead son.

That is outstanding writing, directing and acting, and it set the tone for the entire play.

While Kappler portrayed Becca’s tightly wrapped grief, Haws portrayed Howie’s grief much differently – abruptly and usually inappropriately shouting at Becca or Izzy and then immediately reining in his anger.

Haws typically shines in outsized roles such as John Merrick in “The Elephant Man” or the outlandishly humorous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this role, he proves that he can play an everyman with controlled intensity.

Dorgan is a natural as the meddling mother who, like her daughter, tries unsuccessfully to keep a lid on her emotions.

Beard is the quietest and most controlled of all the cast. He barely speaks, appears shy and painfully polite, and is obviously bottling up his pain.

The most animated and most likable of all is Moser as the outlandish sister who also bottles up her pain but under a faade of humor and bravado.

This play is definitely not for children. It is anything but light entertainment. There is no hopeful, movie-of-the-week resolution, nothing to mitigate the pain. You might not go away in awe of the dramatic effect, but you will go away feeling like you’ve shared life and death.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 3
Where: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
Tickets: $22-$33, rush tickets are $12-$20 a half-hour before curtain
Information: 360-786-0151,

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Did you miss me?

I've missed a few posts due to illness. May last three reviews were not posted here,but they are available online at:

"Scoundrels' at Paradise Theatre a mixed bag
Published in The News Tribune, March 19, 2010

Through April 10 - Lisa Sweet at Kittredge Gallery
Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 19,2010

Rent' gets raw: Capital Playhouse treats cult classic right
Published in The Olympian, March 19, 2010

For those who don't know, I had a heat attack. I spent eight days in the hospital. It will probably be a couple of weeks before I am able to resume my regular schedule of reviews.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Travel Queeries" is coming to Olympia

I have not idea if this is going to be any good or not, but it sure looks interesting.

Post-Gay Productions and Olympia Film Society presents
“Travel Queeries”
Olympia Premiere Screening
Followed by Q&A with Director/Producers
Saturday, April 3
at Capitol Theater
Admission: $5 member/$8 non-members

"(Travel Queeries presents a) subjective take on radical queer art, culture, and activism in today's Europe. Interviews, performances, and a great soundtrack prove that 'queer' is not just a cosy umbrella term for all things non-heterosexual, but clearly a political identity."
Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg, Germany (October 2009)

Travel Queeries is a feature-length documentary film that examines the culture, art and activism of radical queers in contemporary Europe. Through personal interviews, documentation of performances, festivals, multi-media arts and community spaces, the film explores queer as a political identity in 21st century Europe, how language and identities translate over cultural and physical borders. The film visits queers explaining the first Pride in Serbia, stories of the drag scene in Berlin, a queer anarchist black-lingerie block at London Pride, and Barcelona’s queer squatters organizing the 8th international Queeruption. With this exciting international lens on queer fringe culture, Travel Queeries uses storytelling as a tool for bridge building between diverse perspectives within the LGBT/queer community, increasing knowledge and understanding of queer European culture. Audiences in both the US and Europe have voiced amazement at the lack of knowledge or access to information about these queer activists and projects based in Europe.

The Production Team of Travel Queeries consists of Olympia native Elliat Graney-Saucke (who went to Capitol/Avanti HS), Director and Executive Producer, currently based in Berlin, Germany. Margaritte Knezek, Director of Photography/Co-Producer, is currently based in Olympia, WA, completing her degree at The Evergreen State College. Associate Producer Sid Peterson is based in Seattle, WA. All three producers will be in attendance for the Question and Answer session after the film screening.

Relive rockin' '80s with TMP's production of "The Wedding Singer"

Flamboyant fun: ‘Singer’ is a star vehicle

The News Tribune, March 12, 2010
photo by Kat Dollarhide

The old trend of basing movies on Broadway musicals has been revived in recent years to produce a slew of musicals based on hit movies. Some of those are commercially successful but critically mediocre for a couple of reasons.

For starters, the stage versions, especially in community theaters, lack star power. Audiences inevitably compare the play with the movie, and often local actors can’t compare with Hollywood stars. Also, if the translation from film to stage is not theatrical, it becomes a warmed-over version of the movie.

Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s production of “The Wedding Singer” is a delightful exception. With beautiful sets and costumes, rousing music and choreography, it translates well from film to stage. Plus they have the multitalented Matt Posner in the role of Robbie the singer.

Posner is at home on the musical theater stage. He sings and dances in a style reminiscent of old-time Broadway stars, and he has the acting skills to bring characters to life. By way of comparison, Adam Sandler, who starred in the movie version, is a competent comic actor, but not a Broadway-style trooper. Give me Posner in that role any day.

“The Wedding Singer” is a spoof on 1980s music and fashion. Not just the music, but the dialogue is peppered with lines from popular songs of the era. Colorful costumes by Joan Schlegel parody the worst styles of the time, as do the ridiculous hairstyles – mullets on the guys and big teased hair on the gals (plus a wonderful head full of beaded braids on Grant Troyer, who plays a campy cross-dressing musician who looks like a blend of Michael Jackson and Boy George).

“The Wedding Singer” is a star vehicle. The main character, Robbie, appears in just about every scene and sings and dances on almost every musical number – sometimes solo, sometimes in duet with Julia (Elise Campello), and sometimes blending into the ensemble. Posner’s singing stretches from tender ballads to rousing rock numbers. When needed, his voice is a whisper, and on hard-rocking numbers such as “Somebody Kill Me” belts it out like a punk rocker. When singing with others, he doesn’t try to upstage them and tones it down to let his co-stars shine. He convincingly plays angry, hurt, romantic, silly and sloppily drunk.

Campello has the wholesome good looks and the beautiful voice to successfully play the major love interest. Her voice is clear and softly modulated and stands out among dozens of other voices. Her character and Robbie are the only ones in the play who don’t sport outlandish hair and dress (although Robbie’s pink dinner jacket and yellow letterman jacket come close). They are the boy and girl next door in a world full of silly flamboyance.

Among the many supporting actors, Troyer stands out. Five years ago, I singled him out as an outstanding child actor in “The Secret Garden” at Encore! Theatre. He was 12. The next year, I again honored him, that time for his role in “No Strings Attached,” another Encore! show. Now at 17, he has matured into adult roles and is proving that his early promise was no fluke. His portrayal of George is outstanding. You have to see him rap with Granny Rosie (Marilee Johnson) on “Move That Thang.”

“The Wedding Singer” is a light-hearted, silly and exuberant musical comedy translated from film into a highly theatrical entertainment.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through March 28
Where: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave.
Tickets: Adults $25, students/military $23, children 12 and younger $18
Information: 253-565-6867,

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Foggy nights

Dramatic night scenes at Caffé Vita

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 11 2010

Charles Willyard’s paintings of roads at night now showing at Caffé Vita in Olympia look a lot like calendar art or postcard art, or maybe like story illustrations out of a 1950s Saturday Evening Post. Willyard’s painting technique and his sense of design, color and most notably his dramatic light-and-dark contrast are all admirable. He is a skilled painter. But the style and subject matter of these paintings is outdated, melodramatic and sentimental. It is easy to be impressed with these paintings but just as easy to be put off.

When I stepped into this popular Olympia caffeine emporium my eyes went immediately to the wall upon which were a series of what looked to be photographs of dramatically lighted night scenes. They had a surface sheen that from across the room looked so much like high-contrast photographs that I was surprised to see — once I got close enough — that they were paintings. But even upon close examination I couldn’t tell what kind of paintings they were. I thought they were pastels, perhaps because I had recently seen a similar surface sheen in pastels by Bill McEnroe. Willyard says they are acrylic on paper.

In a written statement, the artist said they were inspired by driving home on icy, foggy roads in December of last year. He spoke of the light as being eerie and unnatural.

“When I see those orange sodium street lamps, reflecting off the darkened road, a strange feeling comes over me.” Willyard wrote. “A kind of... sadness? ...longing? Is it that I'm remembering all the road trips I've taken in my life, the loneliness of being far away, headed somewhere, but, in between? Or is it even older than that? Maybe the road awakens an ancient, ‘hard-wired’ instinct to wander and explore? The sense of familiarity, then, may be much deeper.”

The feelings he expresses so poetically in words are equally evoked in the paintings. The dark, foggy and empty roads are rendered in deep tones of blue, black, orange and violet. In his statement Willyard speaks of darkness and mystery, but he does not mention emptiness. And it is the emptiness of the roads that gives these images a haunting quality. There are no cars on the roads, except, possibly in one of the paintings where we see lights that may or may not be headlights far down the road. Maybe it’s four o’clock in the morning and a solitary early riser has just hit the road.

One painting shows an overpass that casts a strong diagonal shadow across the road with banded rows of light filtered between rails on the overpass. The trees and grass are a biting acid yellow. Compositionally this is the strongest piece in the show. It reminds me of some Edward Hopper paintings. Among the rest, the simpler the better. The fewer things are seen, the stronger the emotional impact, which means the strongest of all is a painting in which all of the trees or whatever else may be lurking in the dark are shrouded in fog. The white line down the center of the road is bright blue under the lights and off to the side is a parallel blue band that can be interpreted either as a sidewalk or a drainage ditch with water, or maybe ice.
[Caffé Vita, through March 30, 124 4th Ave. East, Olympia, 360.754.8187]
March 12th - April 19th

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New old paintings

While searching my computer files to update my painting inventory I discovered photos of two old favorite paintings that for reasons I can't remember were never posted on my website. They are "Swimmer No. 38," 41" x 32", acrylic and oilstick on board, and "Window Bill," 39"x60," oil on canvas, 1996.

Back in the '80s I did more than 100 paintings of swimmers. Most of them have been sold, given away, lost or destroyed. This was one of my favorites of the series and one of the few I still have.

"Window Bill" was done nine years later specifically for a show at Childhood's End Gallery in Olympia. The theme of the show as The Golden Mean, and this is the only painting I've ever done by mapping out a grid before I started painting. The grid was based on the traditional proportions of the golden mean. I never understood the mathematics but I know it is roughly a five-to-one ratio, and since my painting methods have always been so intuitive I didn't make any effort to stick to the grid.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pre-written reviews

Mortimer in "Arsenic and Old Lace" is a theater critic who hates plays and writes all of his reviews in the taxi on the way to the theater. He's the playwright's way of slyly jabbing at critics, a favorite pasttime among theater people.

But I suspect there are a lot of critics who write their reviews, mentally at least, on the way to the theater. I know I do it. It's a kind of visualization. Athletes do it all the time. They picture in their minds how they're going to run the race or play the game, and they say it helps them a lot.

I do it when writing theater reviews and art reviews. Often I mentally write, if not the entire review, at least a good chunk of it, and certainly the opening paragraph. In most cases I've already seen other performances of the same play or the movie version, and I've seen other shows starring the same actors or many other plays at the same theater, so I have a good idea what to expect. The same things hold true for art exhibits. Mentally writing ahead of time based on reasonable expectations gives me a good leg up.

More often than not what I see matches my expectations pretty closely. Even if it doesn't, the contrast between my preconceived notions and what I actually see gives me a lot to think about.

Unlike cynical old Mortimer, I love theater and enjoy a good two-thirds of the plays I see (I think community theater in Southwest Washington must be a whole lot better than community theater elsewhere).

Also unlike Mortimer, I have my own critic, and I actually listen to her. My wife, Gabi. She goes with me, and we discuss the plays on the drive home; and then she edits my reviews before I send them in to the actual paid editors. Readers have no idea how often she keeps me from making really stupid statements.

As for Mortimer, I wonder why he even bothered to go to plays at all. A guy like Mortimer could stay home and base his reviews on press releases and Google, and fool most of the people most of the time.

Now Gabi and I are off to see "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor -- a play I've never seen based on a movie I didn't see, so I guess I won't be pre-writing this one.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Crazy ride pumps up Shakespeare

Published: 03/05/10 The News Tribune/The Olympian
Pictured: Aaron Earle Hobbes and Christopher Cantrell, photo courtesy Olympia Little Theatre

Olympia Little Theatre is campaigning to raise the roof, literally. At the preview performance of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” they raised it figuratively.

In my career as a theater critic, I can hardly remember laughing so much or hearing so much laughter. It was a small audience, but they pumped up the volume during this comedic romp, ending with a standing ovation.

“The Complete Works” was written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, and made famous by their touring company, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which has produced countless versions of this and other mutilated Shakespeare works for screen, stage and television. The OLT production is directed by Erich Brown and stars Aaron Earle Hobbes, Chris Cantrell and Thomas Neely as 75 characters in 37 plays plus a sprinkling of sonnets. It’s a madcap high-energy performance filled with physical comedy and outlandish misinterpretations of Shakespeare’s words. And there is a lot of audience participation. As Cantrell, who narrates and plays many parts, warns, “Audience participation is not optional.”

The three actors play all of the parts from plays ranging from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Hamlet” with, in between, all of Shakespeare’s comedies rolled together into a single play.

It is almost impossible to single out any of the three actors because they switch roles so quickly and so often that it’s hard to remember who played which character. Neely plays Romeo to Hobbes’ Juliet, but they quickly change to become Tybalt, Mercutio, the priest and apothecary and others; tumbling, fighting, falling dead with athleticism and lightning-fast costume changes. Hobbes plays most of the female parts and Cantrell is the narrator, although at times Neely or Hobbes steps in to explain the action (with Hobbes in particular getting it terribly, terribly wrong).

Simply remembering their lines and knowing what parts they are playing from one moment to the next must be a daunting challenge. I didn’t notice any flubbed lines or improvisation. But if there were any, who could tell? It just becomes part of the chaos.

“Romeo and Juliet” plays like a Marx Brothers comedy, “Titus Andronicus” is done as a television cooking show with blood and gore worthy of a Monty Python skit, “Othello” is a rap, all of the histories are combined and presented as a football game, all of the comedies are wrapped into one because the actors say they’re all the same anyway. (There is no reverence for Shakespeare here. They say he is a formula writer, yet laud “Hamlet” as the greatest play ever written in the English language.)

Thirty-six plays are done in the first act. “Hamlet” takes up the entire second act, much of which is an overly long psychological analysis of Ophelia, which is done with the help of willing audience members. At the end, everybody dies. Then the dead get up, and they replay the whole thing in a super condensed version. And then again even faster. And then they do it backward.

It is not necessary to be familiar with Shakespeare’s plays to enjoy this show, but it helps. Many of the verbal barbs are funnier if you know the plays, but for people who enjoy slapstick, the physical comedy is hilarious with or without familiarity with the source materials. Much of it could be too intense for young people. Bringing pre-schoolers is not a good idea.

The show is billed as 37 plays in less than two hours, but according to my watch the preview performance ran almost two and a half. ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’

When: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through March 14
Where: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., N.E., Olympia
Tickets: $10-$12, available at Yenney Music Co. on Harrison Avenue (360-943-7500) or
Information: 360-786-9484,

Read more:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fun stuff

Mike Capp’s surrealistic imagery at mineral
Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 4, 2010

I wonder what it’s all about? No, that’s not a question; that’s the name of the Mike Capp exhibit at mineral. I’ve been told there’s a happening art community in Everett that includes Capp, who does knockoffs of Juan Miro and Wifredo Lam combined with a personal iconography that includes mutant Mickey Mouses and frightening Ronald McDonalds. His paintings “don't really mean anything dangerous, angst-y or irksome. There's no mewling social commentary,” he says. Nor are they “meant to provoke the unarticulated terrors of childhood. They're just drawings of monsters, superheroes and robots,” often inspired by his young children.

There’s an inconsistency to Capp’s work that I hope will work itself out before long. Some of his paintings are very precise renderings of pop and surrealistic images, while others — still with the same kind of imagery — are more painterly, sketchy and imprecise. Longtime readers of this column know that I’m partial to sloppy and energetic gesture painting, but in Capp’s paintings the more careful and precise works are much better.

The weakest painting in the show is one called "Superman." White contour drawings of figures are layered over more solidly painted abstract figures, which are, in turn, layered over a landscape-y abstract background. All that layering doesn’t help, and neither does the crude drawing style.

The strongest painting in the show is one called "Improvisation ’03," which is a very elaborate montage of figures including a blue man, a blue Madonna and child, a headless woman and a floating nude done with a sensitive contour line that changes from black to white. The drawing is skillful and the interweaving of figure and background is much better than the layering of images in some of his other works. Even though this painting is illustrational, which I usually don’t like, it is a very good painting.

There are also a couple of paintings in black, white and gray that consist of figures borrowed from Miro, but with cartoon faces, laid over a background borrowed from Jackson Pollock. I saw photos of these before I saw the painting, and I thought there was too much separation of figure and ground, but the actual painting doesn’t have that problem.

Also very nice are three tiny portraits of 1) Superman, 2) the Mad Hatter and 3) a scary Ronald McDonald titled "He’s Watching You", and a lovely little painting of fruit, a rubber ducky and the word “Kiss” rendered like the band’s logo but printed backwards.

It’s a small show in a small gallery, which also features some great jewelry by gallery owner Lisa Konoshita. It’s definitely worth stopping in.

[mineral, noon-5 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (hours may vary, so call first), through April 10, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.250.7745,]