Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Play: Taking a Gander

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Directed by Christopher Ashley, through December 13. Seattle Rep.


This is probably the most difficult glowing review I've ever written. I've put down my thoughts on 9/11 elsewhere, and thought that, coming up on 15 years since the event, I was well clear of the emotion and the heartache of that day. But I was wrong, and have had to start this a couple times already. And during the performance my icy old heart may have calved off a few bergs and I may have knuckled back the tears at the corners of my eyes. Its that good.

Anyway, in recording some of the histories of others, I previously mentioned that two friends were flying back from Europe that day. They felt the plane shift beneath them and watched the light of the sun shift from the left-hand windows to the right-hand ones. They has turned around and were going back to the continent, because Newfoundland was already full from planes that were already closer to the states.

Gander Airport, Newfoundland, after 9/11
This musical is about those people in Newfoundland, near the town of Gander, where a huge airport had been built back in the days when the jets had to stop for refueling there before pressing on. Gander is a small town of about 9000 people. And thirty-six planes set down there in the wake of 9/11, sudden arrivals in their small town. This musical is about the Newfoundlanders and the Plane People.

And it is very, very good.

Part of it is because of the cast. All are strong-voiced (and miked up), good singers, excellent dancers, and good actors. There are a dozen in the company (not including another six or so in the band) who take on the hundreds involved in the event. Actors change characters with surprising grace. Lee MacDougall is both an air traffic controller married to a veterinarian among the Ganders and a shy British executive who comes off as a polite, likeable Jeremy Clarkson. Chad Kimball is one of the two Collins, a gay couple, as well as the striking school bus driver leader. Casear Samayoa is his boyfriend and an Egyptian chef separated from the others by his origins. Jenn Colella  rocks as both a local librarian and the Captain of one of the flight. And Joel Hatch hangs a lantern on it all by portraying every mayor in Newfoundland. All of them are amazing as they blend back into the company to create a horde of characters on the stage.

And the stage. Minimalist, with trees surrounding a rotating center. Band tucked in the corner. The center is everything - bar, Tim Hortons, plane interiors, all built and deconstructed with chairs and tables, all worked seamlessly with the action on the stage. The pacing is intense and continual and relentless, and the music is perfect. This is a well-oiled theatrical machine, perfected by the La Jolla Playhouse, and powered by passion and drive.

The story comes at you full force. Opening on the ground in Gander, then up to the planes where confusion reigns, then into the towers as everyone reroutes them back onto the ground as heavy lifter after heavy lifter comes onto the field. The townspeople scrambling to handle some 9000 new additions. And against it the personal stories - most of them pretty straightforward - the strangers who meet and hit it off, the gay couple whose relationship is challenged, the city guy told to go out and take everyone's backyard grill for a cook-out - no, really, they won't mind. The characters are a bit broad - the plane people connect because they're the people you always see at the airports, the Gander folk because they would not be out of place in an episode of Red Green or even A Prairie Home Companion. Yeah, Lake Woebegone via the coastal provinces.

I look at the past few paragraphs - actors playing multiple roles, empty stage, shifting locations quickly. This is all Brecht's epic theater, without the political agenda and packed with intentionally sympathetic characters. Remember how I said that epic theater has become just theater. Here's an example. And it is used to get you by the feels and drag you through 100 minutes of intensity.

The timing of the play is something, both seasonal and national. Seasonal because we stand on the cusp of that busiest of holidays when everyone is visiting friends and family for a big meal. And national because as in the wake of the Paris attacks, some among us are actually so hard-hearted and foolish to blame refugees for the situation. (And on a note on that, a friend mentioned that our home town, is minority majority. To that I will add that we have 4000+ people of refugee status in our little town of Kent already, and the 10K everyone is kicking about is a drop in the bucket).

So yes, this is your holiday play. Positive. Uplifting. Gives you hope in your fellow man. Go see it. It is already the hot ticket item, and when we got to the theater there was a line fifty people deep at the sales booth. Yeah, you're going to hit some post traumatic stress. And yeah, you're going to cheer the band as they do one more encore number.

More later,

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Play: One Tough Mother

Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by David Hare, Directed by Jeff Steitzer. Seattle Shakespeare Company, through 22 November.

Another one to put in the "Too Late for a Review to Matter" file,which is a pity, since this is worth showing up for.

Spoilers abound, but seriously, this is Mother Courage. If you don't know about it, you really should get thee to a wiki. Written (according to legend) by Brecht in the white-hot heat of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the resulting "Sitzkrieg" when nothing much happened despite war being declared, Brecht was taking on attitudes towards patriotism and war at the very time that his country's leadership was rallying the people for another four years of pain, loss, and agony. Very much speaking truth, or at least irony, to power.

The aforementioned mother (Jeanne Paulsen) is an independent operator in war-torn Europe (the Thirty-Years war, to be exact, in the 1600s). She is a canteen operator following the big armies, selling brandy and lootables to the troops. It is a religious war, but Mother Courage is all about the guilders. The only thing she cares about more than her wagon and her supplies are her children Eilif (Trick Dannecker), Swiss Cheese (Spencer Hamp), and the mute Kattrin (A brilliant Chesa Greene). She tries to benefit from the money sloshing around in the wake of the armies, but wants to protect her children from it. But one by one, she loses them to the very master she serves, leaving her to pull her wagon alone.

The humor is supposed to be black to the point of ultraviolet, and Mother is not supposed to be a sympathetic character. Brecht apparently went back after the debut to make her less vulnerable and likable - he was after what he called epic theater - unlikable protagonists, multiple roles to actors, characters breaking out into song, episodic as opposed to continual flow of action, minimal sets, emotional distance. A lot of which has been picked up over the course of the years by the rest of theater so "epic theater" starts feeling like, well, "theater".

But it is hard not to find sympathy with Mother Courage - all she wants to do is protect her family. The fact that she is endangering them by dragging them into a war zone in the first place is lost on her. And that's the tragedy of the pragmatic Ms. Courage - she thinks she has it all figured out, when in reality she is one more pawn on an ever-growing chessboard.

Jeanne Paulsen is a great strong-willed family mandarin, but even her performance encourages us to root for Courage even as her family is peeled away, opportunities are missed, and blind patriotism presents its butcher's bill. Her voice is strong, but overpowered by the music sometimes (though the entire company is much, much better than the alien landscape of the Mr. Burns play). The audio guys really should be sitting in all the seats to set their levels, and support the actors as opposed to fighting with them. Chesa Greene just disappears into here role as Kattrin. Alyssa Keene as the camp follower Yvette was good and could have gone broader. Similarly Larry Paulsen and R. Hamilton Wright as the two men in Courage's life were great but as well could have gone more comic as well.

And perhaps part of this is what I should be expecting from Brecht. When I hear about political theater, I sorta expect issues to overwhelm subtlety of character, and indeed, the characters have a lot to say about war, even if as characters they either benefit from it or don't show enough sense to get out of the way of it. But I see a lot of humanizing as well, and I think that fights with the original intent.

So, Mother Courage, yes, go see it, in whatever form and upon whichever stage it turns up next. It is not a happy play, but it is epic in every sense of the word.

More later,

Friday, November 20, 2015

Art Cars at the SAM

Inopportune: A Car Cascade
The Seattle Art Museum lobby has for years been dominated by a car explosion. Inopportune: Stage One by Cai Guo Qiang is a series of nine white Ford Tauruses (Tauri?). They are lined up, the first one with all four wheels on the ground, followed by the next seven spiraling through the air, with streams of white bulbs exploding in all directions as the cars tumble end over end, and the last Ford at rest. I've always liked it, and never understood the hate for it, a dislike that bubbles up now that they are finally going to remove that installation after nine years.

As I said, I like it. I liked it when it was part of the museum before its expansion, and I liked it after the museum expansion, when they moved the initial car to the second floor balcony. I've always seen the series of vehicles not as an explosion or a horrible accident, but rather as a threat of danger with a happy ending. I see the cars as a narrative flow, that starts with it going off the balcony, then spiraling through the air (the explosions can just as easily be emotion) but at last coming to rest, unharmed, in the same position as it initially was. It is a car crash. But it also an graphic display of an argument, emotions in all directions, before returning to its base state.

I'm not much a fan of "found object art", which seeks to elevate traditional ready-made object to important art worth considering either seriously or ironically. So just parking a white Ford Taurus in a lobby does nothing for me. However, the creation of a narrative with the cascading Fords, filled with light, then returned to their mundane look really does work for me. It takes the object and gives it additional artistic value and narrative flow.

I'm also a bit suspicious of "installation art" where an entire room or domain within a museum is dedicated to a single work, as if the only way to engage with the work is to clear everything else out of the way. This is the logical antipode of the old, old (old) days, when artwork was jammed cheek by jowl against the wall, creating the pigmented equivalent of having a wall of TVs all on at once. Room-dominating single-item installations smacks of pretense to me, and is more at home with office lobbies than museum space. And perhaps the fact that piece itself is suspended over the entrance lobby makes me more accommodating than if it claimed a full vault of valuable real estate elsewhere.

In any event, yeah, the cars of Inopportune are coming down, and I for one will miss them.

More later,

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Play: Meh

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play By Anne Washburn, Score by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn, Directed by John Langs. ACT,Through 15 November

I've wanted to see this one for some time. It was workshopped locally and I didn't get around to it, then it went to NY and did well and then came back here to the ACT (A Contemporary Theatre, located on the first floor of the convention center downtown), and I meant to get to it, but you know, I was busy shipping a game and all and finally got around to getting tickets for a not-sold-out show for the Saturday matinee on the final weekend. And I'm OK with that, since ultimately what I say here will not have a single effect on ticket sales.

Because I didn't really enjoy it. Eavesdropping on other conversations leaving the theater showed I was not alone. It is a more frustrating play than I would like to admit, though I'm not sure that that wasn't the entire point.

The hook is excellent - in a post- apocalyptic America where civilization has died with the electric grid and a truly dark age has descended on the land, a group of people are gathered around a campfire. And they tell stories. In this case, recreating Simpsons episodes, in particular Cape Feare, which was a take on the DeNiro Cape Fear with Sideshow Bob trying to kill Bart, and the family fleeing to create a new life on a houseboat. And the original show was overpacked with everything, including references to I Love Lucy, Gilbert & Sullivan, Reader's Digest, foreign revolutions, witness protection, hockey masks, and elephants celebrating Hannibal crossing the alps. Not all these pieces make it into the first retelling, and that's part of what's going on here - in a post-literate universe, all we have are memories, and those that survive do so for a reason.

So, Act One is a bunch of people around the campfire recreating a Simpson episode. We get bits and pieces about what happened in the world - keying in on where the nuke plants are/were, and how far away you have to be to be safe. And new practices have come into being - everyone has lists of people they are trying to find, written down in notebooks, all of them keeping the past alive. It all works, and it is keeping the darkness at bay.

Act Two is seven years later, where the characters from Act One have formed into a cohesive theatre troupe. They are producing the Cape Feare episode in a world that is struggling for survival. There are other troupes, and ownership of the lines and bits is hotly contested. In addition, they do "commercials", which are filled with references to the pleasures of the past. This is not about encouraging consumption but rather nostalgic reminders of the richness of past pleasures. The actors argue about artistic merit and wonder about whatever happened to the Diet Cokes in the world. And it is only seven years, and the same characters, so it works.

And then we jump 75 years and the wheels don't exactly come off, but it does wobble an awful lot. We don't get to see the people of this next generation world, but do get to see the artifact that they have created out of the bits of Simpsonia. Now the cast of Springfield tells the tale of the fall of civilization, and the Simpsons have escaped it on their houseboat. Sideshow Bob has been replaced with Mr. Burns in the plot and is now a devil-figure who mercilessly cuts through the family and truly torments Bart. The topical humor has been replaced with a dour moralism, and the stagecraft is more Shakespearean blood and guts in its entertainment.

AND, the third act is a musical, a weird blend of religious ceremony, kabuki, and Broadway musical (with all the tragedy that Broadway musicals seem to traffic in). But this creates an addition problem of following along the chorus. I've always had trouble following the words when everyone is singing - that's why they provide librettos. The result is an alien construct, to a great degree, and you are now looking at the pieces of the past poking through, melded with bits of Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn. Those looking for the original have to realize that the changed world no longer supports the very suppositions that made the Simpsons relevant in the first place, and as such they are transformed.

The cast is great, and it wonderful seeing actors I have seen at the Rep show up here - Anne Allgood, Bhama Roget, and Robertson Witmer. Erik Gratton makes a great Homer, Adam Standley is a perfect Sideshow Bob, though his character in the play is more valuable for his memory. Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako shudders in the first act as a refugee, but blossoms in the second as the troupe's director, only to disappear (with the other characters we care about) in the final act.

And I think that's one of the problems with the play - we DO identify with the characters in the first two acts, and to see them gone in the third frustrates. We see shadows of them in the performance, bits and pieces of their contribution, but they are gone, along with our world. And that leads to a feeling of melancholy when it is all said and done.

I'm not sure if the play is a failure, though it doesn't send the customers out with a feeling of redemption. Not all plays should, but of course playing the Simpsons in this fashion disquiets and frustrates, which again, may just be the point.

In short, while history is written by the victors, art is created by the survivors.

More later,

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Meanwhile, 40 years ago:

Now you have the song caught in your head. You're welcome.

More later,

Monday, November 09, 2015

Game: Captain, My Captain

The Captain is Dead by Joe Price and J T Smith, published by The Game Crafter.

So how about, after all this political crud, we do a real GAME review in this space?

Here's the story: I have a Monday night gaming group. About 4-8 of us gather at a friend's place. For a long time we were playtesting D&D Next/5th Edition in the Barrowmaze setting, run by Steve Winter (and he wants to talk about that, it's his purview). On completing that, we shifted over to a Monday Night Boardgame night, and play stuff from the old to the new. Here's one of the new ones.

The Captain is Dead is set aboard a rather ... familiar-seeming starship, and bad things have happened. The jump engines are down. Various random systems have failed. Aliens are boarding. Oh, and worst of all, the Captain, the man who always can figure a way out of these messes, is dead, and the players have to figure out how to survive without him.

The players control characters who are also ... rather familiar. The Science Officer. The Chief Engineer. The Medical Officer. The Transporter Chief. Not to mention The Hologram, The Ensign, the Counselor, and the red-shirted Crew Man (who never gets wounded, but is always killed immediately, and replaced with another identical Red Shirt, making him immortal). All of them have special strengths, and the purpose of the game is to pool those resources, in the face of rapidly decaying infrastructure and enemy ships to get the Jump Core back online and warp out.

I'm not a fan of co-operative board games, often because they are not always that co-operative. In Betrayal at the House on the Hill, for example, you're all exploring the haunted house until someone becomes the Big Bad, so everything you've done up to that point is pretty much setting up the board for someone's sudden but inevitable betrayal. The Captain is Dead keeps everyone co-operative from beginning to end, and crafts several mechanisms that ratchets up the tension while encouraging player co-operation. Each turn becomes a group discussion of actions, reactions, and planning as they group strives to get the Jump Core back online. Our gang has played it twice now, and each time was a near thing for survival.

The game mechanics have a lot going for it. The character roles are color co-ordinated, so you can either have a Weapons Officer (who is good at using the torpedoes) or a Soldier (who is good at taking on invading aliens) but not both. Each role has a base number of abilities that it adds to its actions, plus a additional ability that both helps out the team and adds to that character. Bad things happen as a result of the deck, which is litterally stacked against you. The easy disasters (Weapons Array is out, Aliens board) are in the early going, but if you get deep into the deck, you encounter starship extinction-level events that would wipe you out on a good day.

I remember our starship - You wore red, the aliens wore black
(Photo by Anne Trent)
The board itself is very simple, consisting of starship positions and hallways. You can transport between the positions easily, unless the transporter is on the fritz (of course), in which case it has to be repaired. Oh, and sometimes the doors all lock. Oh, and if aliens show up in your area, you become wounded and can only move one space until you get the medical bay. Oh, and there can be random space anomalies that mean that you can't do anything if you're alone, or can't do anything is anyone is with you (and in some cases, both effects can be at work).

The art on the board and the cards is colorful and iconic, and the style is Starfleet via the Communist side of the Spanish Civil War. The increasing deadliness of the event cards mean that the clock is ticking, and every small victory (negating a card, solving an anomaly, getting a tool) is one more step towards you eventual goal, and feels right and rewarding. It is a co-operative game that rewards co-operation and planning, so that every turn is a group discussion on how to navigate the most recent disaster that has been thrown into your path.

A lot of fun. Highly recommended. The game was originally kickstarted, but can be purchased at The Game Crafter.

More later

Friday, November 06, 2015

Play: On a Clear Day

Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins, Directed by David Bennett, through 22 November, Seattle Rep.

True confession? I'm not a big Streisand fan. I have friends who are big fans of hers, but I just merely like her stuff, which sounds kind of small-minded, since her "stuff" includes award-winning movies, Broadway, music, and public works and excelling in all those things. So I feel a little petty when the best I can sum up is "Wasn't she was good in 'What's Up, Doc?'"

Not Shown - Basement Mall
Similarly, I don't get the haters, either. Yeah, I hear the whole nine yards of being demanding and private and litigious, but had to go look up the Streisand Effect on the wikipedia, which apparently stems from the fact that she tried to squash a picture of her mansion in Malibu, and as a result called attention to said picture and spread it far and wide (the Wiki page shows the picture she was trying to squelch, and actually does have some bearing on this review).

So I'm lukewarm on Barbra. But Buyer & Cellar? That's laugh-out loud funny.

Here's the reality at the core of it all: In the basement of Streisand's Mansion's Barn (you can see it in the photo), there is a mall. Or rather, all of Streisand's stuff is stored in this basement as a recreation of a series of old-timey shops. Sort of a personal museum crossed with a glorified U-Stuff-It.

Jonathan Tolins wondered aloud in his blog about what it would be like to work in that underground mall, with its various specialty shops along with a popcorn machine and smoothie-maker - a mall with effectively one customer. And that turned into a long, wonderful, one-act called Buyer and Cellar.

Alex Moore (A delightful Scott Drummond) is that friend who you get together with every so often for lunch and dish like a couple old women. He's a would-be actor banned from working in Disneyland after an "incident" at Toon-Town. This sort of one-actor play demands from the outset that you like the one actor, and Drummond is likable in spades. We are pulling for him from the get-go as he confidentially leans towards you and tells you that everything you're about to hear is imaginary. And you don't care.

After the Toon-Town debacle, Alex gets a gig in the mansion's cellar, tending to the exhibits, dusting, and awaiting the arrival of "The Customer". And it is every bit as weird as it sounds. Drummond dances between the characters of Alex, his support network (his boyfriend), the house staff (a Frau-Blucher-like intermediate), James Brolin (complete with Capricorn One reference) and Barbra herself. Drummond doesn't "do" Streisand like an impressionist, but rather gives enough conversational takes to capture the character (though I will admit that some of his Barbraesque reactions verge on the Nora Desmond, and an air of Sunset Boulevard hangs over the proceedings).

And it is funny. Laugh-out loud funny. You like Alex, and you both appreciate Barbra and recognize the humor in the huge gulf between Employer/Superstar/Customer and Property Manager/Property Alex. But more importantly, every joke lands. OK, there are couple references to famous interior designers that went right over my head, but Tolins' handling of modern popular culture and modern life is spot on. In five years most of the references will feel as creaky as watching on old episode of the Red Skelton Show, but for this moment and this point in time, it is hilarious.

I am trying to remember the last show I saw this funny at the REP. There have been funny shows, shows with humor, shows with jokes, but they tend to be harnessed to a greater purpose. Buyer and Cellar addresses that whole American class-system-by-success, but that's not its real purpose. Instead, it takes a ridiculous situation, twists it to make if more ridiculous, and lets fly. After the inevitable Greek tragedy of A View from the Bridge, this is a delightful little lift of a play.

More later,