Friday, January 29, 2016

Second Samuel at Tacoma Little Theatre

 Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 28, 2016
Doc (Michael Dresdner) and B Flat (Aaron Mohs-Hale).  All photos courtesy Dennis K Photography
Tacoma Little Theatre’s production of Second Samuel is a little play that tackles big subjects in an inventive manner while maintaining its light-hearted feel. It is a stylistic marvel with two sets: the Bait and Brew Bar (stage left), advertising red eye, that’s booze, and red wigglers, that’s bait; and the Change Your Life Hair and Beauty Emporium (stage right). These settings are strictly segregated by sex, with the women in the salon and the men in the bar. The only person to be seen in both is B Flat (Aaron Mohs-Hale), who is both the narrator and a major character in the story. This dichotomy is carried over to the structure of the story, which separates Act 1 and Act 2 into stories that are different in mood, light comedy in the first act and heavy drama that still manages to keep just enough humor after the intermission. Credit playwright Pamela Parker and director Chris Serface for this magic act, brought about by having dialogue overlap and, in places, having characters speak in chorus with the narrator, all of which is augmented by lighting, also by Serface.

Ruby (Ellen Peters), Marcela (Neicie Packer), Omaha (Diana George), Jimmy Deeanne (Jill Heinecke)
During the first act, I was afraid it was going to be just another farcical play making fun of uneducated Southerners. I had recently been subjected to one of those, and it was a horrible experience. But there was hope because Mohs-Hale’s narration and his depiction of the boy called B Flat was so natural, unassuming and sincere, and because the rest of the characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast seemed natural despite being quirky and verging on Southern stereotypes. They even got the accents right with no exaggeration.
Second Samuel Cast
Throughout the first act it was a lighthearted play of hootenanny humor, until something totally unexpected happened, something I cannot divulge, something that completely changed the play from a frothy comedy to a serious look into the soul of a town.
The second act takes an unflinching look into the ways in which residents of a small town overcome intolerance and rise above their stuck-in-the-mud ways. It is still humorous, but with sensitivity and intelligence never forecast by the first act.
The story takes place in a small town in Georgia in the late 1940s, where everyone knows all about everyone else. Or they think they do.
There is a definite Our Town feel. We expect the men in the bar and the women in the beauty parlor to go on lovingly fussing and fighting forever, but the death of Miss Gertrude changes all of that. Never seen on stage, Miss Gertrude is already dead when the play opens. She was one of the most beloved people in town, and her death takes the townspeople into unexpected territory.
There is only one black character in the play, U.S. (Jimmy Shields), whom everyone likes. This at a time and place when virulent racism was rife. The only racist in town is Mr. Mozel (Tom Birkeland), a curmudgeonly old man who doesn’t like anyone. If we were expecting realism, this could have been a damaging blow to the play, but Mr. Mozel is not presented as a real person but rather as a symbol for all the small minded and racist people who would actually live in a town like Second Samuel.
The owner of the Bait and Brew, Frisky (Kerry Bringman) is anything but frisky, except probably with his wife, Omaha Nebraska (Diana George). They love each other dearly, but he is embarrassed by any show of affection in front of the other men. Omaha and her siblings, by-the-way, are all named after cities.
U.S. is possibly the smartest person in town. He and B Flat are the town’s peacemakers along with, to a lesser degree, Doc (Michael Dresdner), who tells the town busybodies to mind their own business. The most infuriating of these busybodies is Jimmy Deeanne (Jill Heinecke) the self-absorbed wife of the local Baptist preacher.
Mansel (Bob Yount) is a good ol’ boy who drinks a lot and tells whoppers that nobody believes. He is married to Marcela (Neicie Packer), who tries her best, with minimal success, to make a good man out of him. Most of these characters are flawed but basically good.
The cast is outstanding. I want to see more and more of Shields and Mohs-Hale. Heinecke beautifully portrays the woman you love to hate. Yount, Bringman and Dresdner are each so natural in their roles that if I didn’t know better I’d think they were playing themselves.
I was intrigued by many of the character names, which enhance the quirky character of the town of Second Samuel, so named because the original town of Samuel was destroyed and rebuilt; which is what happens metaphorically to the townspeople after Miss Gertrude’s death.
Second Samuel is an unpretentious play that tackles large themes and brings them down to manageable size. It takes place on a set (designed by Lex Gernon) that reflects the time and place, and the intimate feel of the very believable characters. It is a relatively short play that comes in at a little under two hours including intermission.

Note: It was called to my attention that I erroneously said B Flat was the only man to venture into the hair salon. I had forgotten that Doc also ventured into the salon where he showed Jimmy Deeanne and others the error of their ways.
Second Samuel, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 7, $20-$24, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N “I” St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281,

Prison Obscura
Documenting life in prison at The Evergreen State College
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 28, 2016
installation shot, courtesy The Evergreen State College
Like images captured with a pinhole camera, also known as a camera obscura, the exhibition Prison Obscura at The Evergreen State College “considers this fundamental distortion that characterizes vision and viewing, how we see and don’t see the people we incarcerate, the people we put in boxes. Guiding the viewer through the visual culture of America’s prisons, the exhibit traces the contours of that box, to attempt to make sense of the dominant narratives and stereotypes that somehow justify a U.S. system now locking up people at an unprecedented rate,” as stated in a press release for the show.
Prison Obscura is the major offering among four related shows in Evergreen’s library building, each taking a look at our prisons through the lenses of cameras — in some cases actual pinhole cameras.
The first thing to meet the eye when entering the gallery is a video projection called “Proliferation” by Paul Rucker. Depending on what part of the looping video is showing, you see a single green light on a large screen, and then another and another, and then lights of other colors; the lights flash on faster and faster and begin to create a shape as they proliferate. It is a map of the United States, and what it is showing is the proliferation of prisons in our country over a 250-year history. As should be expected, it starts on the East Coast and marches westward, and the density matches the population density of the country. It is mesmerizing and frightening.
In some prisons large, fanciful landscapes printed on vinyl cover parts of the walls in visitor areas, the only areas where photographs are allowed. These idyllic landscapes hide doors and bars and locks, so when visitors take portraits of their incarcerated loved ones, the only background images to leave the prison are these landscapes. Artist Alyse Emdur has documented these. These landscapes are hung on the gallery walls, and on a table top resting on two sawhorses are collections of portraits of prisoners taken in front of these backdrops. It is so sweet and so false.
On one wall of the gallery is an array of harshly lighted, black-and-white photographs of prisoners as part of a nine-year project by Robert Gumpert in which he photographed prisoners and asked them to tell a story, which he recorded. The audio recordings, unedited and uncensored, accompany the images.
One of the more striking displays is a set of six pinhole photos taken by girls at Remann Hall Detention Center in Tacoma, a project coordinated by TESC faculty member Steve Davis. The images are fuzzy, soft focus, slightly distorted, and exceedingly sad. Facing this is a wall of portraits of kids in Maple Lane and Remann.
In a separate but related show downstairs in the Photoland Gallery are more photos by Davis. A large-scale photograph at the entry to the gallery area pictures a wall of heavy, locked cell doors numbered 10 through 14, each with a small window. A face looks out from behind all but one of the windows. This image made me shiver.
On the back side of this panel is a life-size black-and-white photo of two teenage boys in chains and locks. They are like men in chain gangs 50 years ago, except they are contemporary and they are kids.
One of the more striking images in this set of photos is of a girl from Remann Hall holding a plaster-cast mask in front of her face. There is no wall label to explain. Is it a cast of her face? Is she holding it up to hide or to show off her work? This was the last picture I saw before leaving the gallery, and I left wondering about this young girl. What had she done to get herself locked up and what is going to happen to her? What about all the others? How many of them have been wrongly incarcerated, and what is going to become of them?
These are not feel-good art exhibitions. They are shows that should be seen.
Prison Obscura, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tue.,Thurs., Fri.; 1:30-5 p.m. Wed., through March 2, The Evergreen State College Gallery, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Library 1st floor, Olympia, 360.867.5125

Friday, January 22, 2016

Junie B. Jones at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 22, 2016
The cast of Junie B. Jones with Junie (Sammy Cattin) in the center with blue skirt. Photo credit: Dennis Kurtz

The cast of Junie B. Jones with teacher Mr. Scary (Blake York). Photo credit: Dennis Kurtz
Watching TMP Family Theater’s Junie B. Jones was a joyful experience. This upbeat musical is based on the popular children's book series by Barbara Park. And it’s not just for children. My wife and I don’t have any young children, and we enjoyed it as much as many musical comedies for grownups. It’s upbeat and hilarious, and the music really rocks.
Sammy Cattin in the lead role is marvelous. A dynamo of energy at four-feet-ten, Cattin bursts on stage like a rocket. She has athletic moves and an expressive face that vacillates instantly from expressing outrageous optimism to crushing defeat, from childish petulance back to delight. And she sings wonderfully. Her previous stage experience includes playing Liesl Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Ado Annie in Oklahoma. According to the program, she is currently applying to Cornish College of the Arts “to continue her pursuit in theater.” I suspect she will soon be wowing them as she did us.
The rest of the cast is praiseworthy as well. Francesca Guecia as Junie’s sometimes nemesis, Lucille is captivating to watch. Sam Tebb as Junie’s new best friend – too young, to be a boyfriend but her boy friend nevertheless – is highly likeable and sings nicely. Isaiah Parker in the double roles of Sheldon and Chenille has some of the best comedic expressions you’re likely to see on stage anytime soon. The second scene in which Parker and Stephen Nishida in the double roles of José and Camille come out dressed as girls is comic gold. Their expressions are precious.
Blake York does a yeoman’s duty in the many roles of Junie’s father; her teacher, Mr. Scary; the no-nonsense bus driver; and the hilarious cafeteria lady Gladys Gutzman. (It would have been logical for Tasha Smith, playing the only other adult female characters, to play the part of Gladys Gutzman, but casting York was a brilliant move, which I assume can be credited to director and choreographer Lexi Barnett. Also worth of praise are Rae Trotter as Tattletale May and Paddington Barnett as Tickle.
The story begins with Junie, who insists of using the middle initial “B” when saying her name, getting ready for the first day of first grade. She can barely contain her excitement because she is going to get to spend a whole school year sitting next to her best friend from kindergarten, Lucille. But she is crushed when Lucille announces that she has dropped her in favor of her new best friends Chenille and Camille  ̶  twins whom she apparently loves because their names rhyme, which spurs a great be-bop song by Lucille, Chenille and Camille, much to Junie’s dejection.
Following are a series of high hopes and crushing defeats for Junie, who gets sad but never gives up and never loses hope.
I love the simple set by Bruce Haasl, consisting primarily of Junie B’s giant “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal” with pages that open to create various background scenes, wonderfully painted in a childlike style by Haasl. Beyond the big journal there are no set pieces or props except for chairs and desks the actors move about to create seats on the bus and at school.
It is a short, laugh-filled play, approximately an hour and 15 minutes including an intermission.
Junie B. Jones purple glasses are on sale in the lobby for $5.
Go see it as soon as you can, no matter your age and no matter if you have children or not. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.
TMP Family Theater at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Jan. 23 and 2 p.m., Jan. 24, 7116 6th Ave, Tacoma, WA 98406, 253.565.6867.