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In the News (2015-2016)

Theater review: ‘Hamlet,’ dir. Megan Brewer

By Katie Anastas The UW Daily

31 May, 2016

College students often find themselves at a crossroads. Whether it’s choosing a major, pursuing a career, picking a graduate school, or just figuring out what you’re doing over the summer, young adulthood comes with some tough decisions.

And for everyone’s favorite Shakespearean prince, tough decisions result in literal inner conflict in the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) newest production of “Hamlet.”

Hamlet (Peter Sakowicz), prince of Denmark, remains in mourning two months after his mother’s death. Though his father, Gertrude (Chris Mowers), encourages him to celebrate his marriage to his aunt Claudius (Gabi Boettner), Hamlet refuses to stop wearing black clothes and feels that his life no longer has value.

One night, Hamlet and his friends see the ghost of his deceased mother. She reveals that Claudius killed her, and instructs Hamlet to seek revenge against the woman who took over her throne and married her husband.

When Hamlet accepts this task, he literally splits in two, with Byron Walker playing the murderous, vengeful side of Hamlet. Sakowicz and Walker share Hamlet’s lines for the rest of the play, highlighting Hamlet’s inability to make decisions and act upon them.

The use of two Hamlets is extremely effective. Hamlet’s oscillation between action and inaction is highlighted in his soliloquies, with Sakowicz and Walker arguing with each other and, at times, dealing blows. In one scene, Sakowicz holds a book in front of his face to block Walker out of his view, symbolizing the moral beliefs that stop Hamlet from killing Claudius during most of the play.

The two Hamlets work surprisingly well outside of the soliloquies, thanks to the thoughtful division of the lines. Two notable examples are his confrontations with Ophelia (McKenna Donahue) and Gertrude. While Walker uses verbal and physical violence to provoke the reactions he wants from the other characters, Sakowicz seeks to console them, as if apologizing for the actions of his other half.

Eventually, Walker’s Hamlet is left to fight Ophelia’s sister Laertes (Lindsey Crocker) in the final duel, signifying his complete descent into madness and loss of restraint.

All of the show’s actors portray their characters well. Sakowicz depicts Hamlet’s familial devotion and keeps the audience on Hamlet’s side, while Walker’s anger and aggression are intimidating. Donahue and Crocker portray a loving sisterhood between Ophelia and Laertes. Mowers depicts Gertrude’s guilt and anxiety well throughout the play. Boettner is a powerful Queen Claudius, and the scene in which she prays for forgiveness is especially well done.

Making Laertes female worked well and strengthened her relationship with Ophelia. But, in my opinion, switching the genders of Claudius and Gertrude didn’t provide much of a new take on the characters. Since Gertrude remains rather feminine and Claudius rather masculine, their relationships with each other and with Hamlet remain the same.

The show’s visual elements are well suited to the play. The military-inspired costumes, mostly gray and black with touches of color, work well for both male and female characters. The set is minimal; gray and red banners get torn down as the play progresses, leaving only dark, blank walls for the final scene.

In the director’s note, Megan Brewer writes that Hamlet’s questions of identity are relevant for all people during times of transition. As another school year comes to an end, seniors graduate, and we as students seek to define our places in society, this production of “Hamlet” provides an innovative look at inner conflict and its resolution.

“Hamlet’s incessant search for self isn’t that far from our own personal realities,” Brewer writes. “In the end, the question is not about being or not being. It is about how.”

“Hamlet” runs from May 26 through June 5 at the Cabaret Theater in Hutchinson Hall. Tickets are $5 for UW students and $10 for general admission.

The verdict: The UTS’s production of “Hamlet” cleverly presents the character’s inner conflict and its damaging effects on himself and the people around him.

Theater review: ‘The Secretaries,’ dir. Alyssa Karounos

By Katie Anastas The UW Daily

22 April, 2016

Those of us who menstruate are used to the pain, mood swings, and cravings that come along with it. For the women in “The Secretaries,” that time of the month also involves chainsaws and murder.

UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society describes its latest production as “a provocatively feminist play about body image, sexuality, sex, PMS, blood, and killing men.”

The story revolves around Patty Johnson (Emma Halliday), a new secretary at the Cooney Lumber Mill. Initially, she is thrilled to begin her new job and get to know the three other secretaries in the office, Ashley Elizabeth Frantangelo (Rayna Stackhouse), Peaches Martin (Sayre Thompson), and Dawn Midnight (Nina Williams), and their boss, Susan Curtis (Gracia Imboden).

Confusion replaces excitement as Patty realizes that workplace camaraderie includes synced menstrual cycles, a forced diet of SlimFast shakes, celibacy pledges, lingerie parties, and the monthly killing of a local lumberjack.

The all-female cast does an excellent job with the challenging story. Halliday portrays Patty’s initial innocence and lasting confusion quite well. Stackhouse exudes jealousy, sophistication, and superiority. Thompson makes the audience sympathize with Peaches’ weight concerns. Williams, who also plays Patty’s boyfriend, Buzz, excels at both innocent flirting and complete seduction. Imboden is especially impressive, easily switching from powerfully sexy to frighteningly intimidating.

That said, this play is not for everyone.

“The Secretaries” was written by The Five Lesbian Brothers, a group of female playwrights who aim to “create provocative lesbian theater for the masses through the fine feminist art of collaboration.”

On their website, they write, “Our work … always tackles big themes such as internalized sexism and homophobia, the corrupting influence of corporate culture, sexual obsession. … We are equitable in our parody, skewering homosexuals and feminism with the same vigor we apply to mainstream culture, [and] the results are most often strikingly ‘politically incorrect.’”

“The Secretaries” attempts to skewer more than one play can handle. It criticizes both sexism and feminism, both dieting and weight gain, both heterosexuality and homosexuality, both consensual sex and sexual assault, leaving the audience unable to walk away with a clear message.

While the play satirizes PMS by having its characters kill a man every 29 days, it’s difficult to call the entire play satirical because of the more realistic events it also includes. Many lines and situations are genuinely funny, but there are also multiple scenes of sexual harassment and lack of consent. Some of these scenes are exaggerated (Susan unbuttoning Patty’s shirt in the middle of the office), while others are not (Dawn continually attempting to have sex with Patty despite her multiple protests).

Though its writers identify as feminist lesbians themselves, the show portrays this group as very predatory. Patty’s relationship with Buzz is much healthier than her encounters with Dawn. The female characters, especially Dawn and Susan, consistently overstep sexual boundaries. While trying to sleep with Patty, Dawn jokes that sex doesn’t count if it’s between two women, allowing both of them to deny the abusive nature of their relationship.

The program warns of “language, weapons, explicit sexual content, loud noises, mature content, [and] excessive use of blood,” but it’s the conflicting messages about feminism and sexuality that makes “The Secretaries” an overwhelming experience.

“The Secretaries” runs through May 1. It is one hour and 50 minutes long, with no intermission. The show’s designers, cast, and crew will be hosting “talkbacks” after the performances April 23 and April 30 to discuss the play with audience members.

The verdict: The multitude of messages in “The Secretaries” may be more intimidating than the blood and chainsaws.

Buried in The Language Archive

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

4 March, 2016

I spent seventeen years working as a baker. In college I studied comparative linguistics. I also used to speak Esperanto, helped by collecting ESP Jazz albums as a youth (ESP being short for Esperanto, as it turns out). Indeed I once donated my own linguistics books to a production of the play, so by all rights I should be deeply sympathetic with Julia Cho’s play The Language Archive which is about linguistics and bread baking and learning Esperanto.

But no.

I’ve seen it three times now in different productions. Each time I see it the play reveals more untenable flaws, not the least of which is empty pretense. For a play that pretends to deal with language, it’s shockingly banal. It contains not a single intellectual argument or discussion, preferring instead to insert lectures and soliloquy. Remove its references to linguistics, and the play appears in its naked glory as a bourgeois melodrama about bourgeois characters dealing with the bourgeois topic of divorce with bourgeois generality.

In chain of escapist fantasies, George, the nominal protagonist, escapes into dead and dying languages. His wife escapes into the romantic fantasy of travel and a new life. Emma, George’s assistant, escapes into visions of romance with George. It all sounds so tragic, except it isn’t. All of them are completely self-absorbed as though their own pain were unique and somehow defined the entire universe. At any point any one of them could act or speak, but none of them does because, you know, words and stuff are hard. The minor characters around them have far more pluck than the three nominal leads, leaving me to wonder why the author didn’t simply write about them and leave ciphers like George, Mary, and Emma to wander off into a Tracy Letts play to be shot at.

Structurally, too, it fails me. Unidentified modes of address run throughout the piece. Characters dream, but then they don’t really. People lie, or maybe not; no one pursues the issue any further. Soliloquies on stage are heard by other characters on stage, but not consistently. The tidy summing-up by characters at the end is as fatuous as the end of a Hallmark Channel docudrama. I expected to see projected supertitles above the stage, saying, “It gets better” or “If you have trouble with being a gutless white person who avoids Truth, please call us at 206-555-1212” followed by a K-Pop song over the rear title credits.

Given all that, I knew the UW Undergraduate Theater Society would be up against it. But the wonderful thing about student drama is that is forces me to reassess. Particularly at the undergraduate level, the students choose plays because that’s what they actually want to do, and need not pretend otherwise. Consequently they throw themselves into their work and they find what speaks to them.

What speaks to director Parker Kennedy in this play is, I think, the way that it moves fluidly between inner psychology and outer expression as two distinct worlds that overlap. To that end, Mr. Kennedy has accentuated the play’s artifice. Fiona Clark and David Carli-Arnold have provided staging that is truly spartan. The stagehands themselves are clearly visible during transitions. Even actors leaving and entering make their transit by being wheeled in and out of the space while the beautiful “First Breath After Coma” by Explosions in the Sky plays in the background.

I think this helps the production greatly. The whole play is artificial, so the director’s artificial approach speaks to what he has found the text. Mr. Kennedy has also read the play for what it is in another sense: instead of a discursive piece of dramatized situations, it is really a series of actor moments. Best then to give them minimal structure, then get out of the way of the actors.

Much of this cast is new to me. I’ve seen Connor Mullaney, Jake Lemberg, and Hannah Probst before, and they are delightful as always. The chemistry between Mr. Lemberg and Ms. Probst especially charmed me. I am also very fond of Sarah Russell’s turn as the language instructor. It’s rough, silly, even naive, yet she imbues it with a genuine human tenderness without ever being saccharine.

Those minor characters have all the best lines. Watching Lucia Lobosvilla as Emma, however, was a revelation. Given perhaps the most difficult role in the play, Ms. Lobosvilla creates a performance that is remarkable for its subtlety. Her skill at listening actively while still keeping everything at a necessary emotional distance for her character shows a level of skill I wish some professional actors had. Emma is supposed to be the frumpy, unattractive, dismissible woman of small dreams in the piece, and yet Ms. Lobosvilla somehow turns her into a sympathetic and realistic woman instead of a mere type.

Given his family name, I expect good things from Dalton Broback. He handles George’s stultified personality as well as I might expect, and has a fine voice. But George would be challenging even for the finest actor in the world. How does one make him into anything other than an insufferably puerile oaf? I have no idea, because I’ve never seen it happen. Even a talent like Mr. Broback’s blunts as it pounds against that wall. I look forward to seeing him in something where he can let himself go a little more than here, where cluelessness is the name of the game.

As Mary, Lindsey Crocker seems to be working against what I think are her natural gifts for characterization. Part of the problem no doubt stems from my having seen it early in its run. There are moments where it seems she is in a hurry to get to the next peak moment rather than simply inhabiting her space–which she does very well. I suspect that this will smooth out over the run of the play. Ms. Crocker has a gift for physical work that would serve her well in a more comic piece. Her turn here made me consider how much more I would like this play if it were played more as a screwball comedy instead of a two hour Lifetime movie.

I await a production in which a cast this talented can make a real argument for the play. I haven’t seen that show yet–I doubt seriously that I ever will–but it must be possible. The students of the UW UTS have done an excellent job pointing out certain aspects of the play where it might actually hold some real power. But there is a long way to go. Nothing changes my mind that the play is fundamentally a compromised melodrama, when what I really want is either a real melodrama or a real dramatic argument.

Theater review: ‘The Language Archive,’ dir. Parker Kennedy

By Katie Anastas The UW Daily

4 March, 2016

It’s estimated that every two weeks, a language dies,” says George, the main character of the latest play from the UW Undergraduate Theater Society. “I don’t know about you, but this statistic moves me far more than any statistic on how many animals die or people die in a given time, in a given place. Because when we say a language dies, we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life.”

Written by Julia Cho and directed by Parker Kennedy, “The Language Archive,” tells the story of a linguist whose wife leaves him to pursue a life on her own. Through their encounters with each other and with other people, they learn to understand the power of both speech and silence.

The play begins with an argument between George (Dalton Broback) and Mary (Lindsey Crocker), a married couple whose rocky relationship is rooted in miscommunication. George complains about Mary’s constant crying, while Mary feels George shows a lack of emotional sensitivity. Mary leaves notes for George throughout the house foreshadowing the end of their marriage, and the first scene ends with Mary telling George, “I’m leaving you.”

The rest of the story follows George and Mary after their separation. George, a linguist, works on his project called “The Language Archive,” in which he attempts to record speakers of dying languages. He and his assistant, Emma (Lucia Lobosvilla), work to record the last two speakers of the Elloway language. This elderly couple, Alta (Hannah Probst) and Resten (Jake Lemberg), only speak in English during their many arguments, much to George’s frustration.

Meanwhile, Emma attempts to learn Esperanto, a universal language created by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887 that has become George’s favorite. Constantly searching for opportunities to confess her love for him, Emma acts as George’s emotional support as he accepts the loss of his wife.

“The Language Archive” surrounds its audience with language. Audience members hear recordings of people saying, “Hello” and “I love you” in different languages as they walk into the theater. George breaks the fourth wall immediately, speaking to the audience throughout the show. He leads a “brief lesson in Esperanto” after the intermission, drawing the audience back into the world of the play.

The stage consists of a small wooden platform under a spotlight. A variety of settings are created using a small amount of furniture; the chairs in George and Mary’s house double as a train car later in the play, and the pieces of a train station bench are transformed into a bed. Actors and furniture are rolled on and off stage on a platform, making them look like dolls being brought to a doll house.

All of the actors bring personality and depth to their characters. Probst and Lemberg provide comic relief as a bickering couple, with Alta defending her cooking abilities while Resten struggles to swallow one bite of her homemade stew. Crocker delivers a beautiful performance as Mary, showing both strength and vulnerability as she attempts to create a new life for herself. Lobosvilla charmingly depicts the joy and suffering of unrequited love. Broback’s performance is especially strong, portraying the admirable, yet flawed linguist struggling to find the right words for how he feels.

The play explores both the power and limitations of language, especially among people who love each other. The loss of communication between George and Mary mirrors the potential loss of the Elloway language, and all characters struggle to articulate responses to the problems they face.

“The Language Archive” will run through March 13 at the Cabaret Theatre in Hutchinson Hall. The show is two hours long with a 10-minute intermission.

The verdict: Strong acting performances, interactive elements, and an innovative set will leave you at a loss for words.

Electra: Oration, Orison, and Oratorio

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

Gary Corseri recently reminded me of a legend about Sophocles from Cicero’s On Old Age. In his 90s, his much younger and greedier sons tried to assume control over all of the old man’s wealth. They argued before the court that because he was in his 90s, his memory was giving out and he had become senile. Thus the playwright was incompetent to manage his affairs and they asked for control over the estate. When the court asked Sophocles to respond about whether his memory had begun to fail, he began to recite lines from every play he had written, including his latest, Oedipus at Colonus, with perfect recall and a bit of thespian skill as well.

The case was dismissed, of course.

I bring this up not only because I love Sophocles and because it’s a marvelous tale but also because the story reveals one of the playwright’s greatest qualities–namely, his incredible attention to details. Every poetic turn of phrase, every ironic comment, every description of a person or object has a purpose: to lead the audience to the inexorable denouement.

It’s a formidable challenge to shape it all correctly. The shape of the Undergraduate Theater Society’s production of Sophocles’ Electra (adapted by Frank McGuinness) is surprisingly strong, but the details are still a little rough. Director Rachel Perlot’s overall conception is sensible enough: strip away everything extraneous, connect the bloodshed of Greek tragedy visually with the contemporary horror film, and make people wonder if Electra is an avenging angel or a complete nutjob. This in many ways is completely traditional. The director is also blessed with a rather good cast. The problems come in striking just the right tone at the right time within the text.

Whatever my misgivings about Frank McGuinness’s translation, it does give the cast and director clues on how to handle the text. There are, essentially, four different levels within the play. There is the purely informational speech, which is extremely rare in the piece. The other three are more difficult to extract, but for purposes of discussion I like to call them oration, orison, and oratorio. Oration text is poetic, argumentative, approbatory, accusatory–in other words, “heightened speech.” Orison is prayer: ritualistic, solemn, meant to invoke the gods. And oratorio is, of course, music but music on an operatic level, music which one must sing.

Ms. Perlot understands the level of oration well enough. But the other levels are less clear. Electra’s entrance, for instance, offers an example.

Divine light, Sweet air, Again hear My pain. Divine light, Sweet air, Again hear My pain. Have you not witnessed when morning breaks My heart break, my heart break?

The repetition here is a stone-cold clue that this is an orison. There is the invocation–divine light being another phrase for the god Apollo–and then there is the prayer at the close:

I call upon Persephone I call upon the dead, I call upon the Furies Revenge my father’s blood-stained marriage bed Revenge my father, Send me back my brother

But what’s in the middle? It’s difficult to say. Given:

My mother’s hands turned red with his blood. Adulteress, Adulterer, she and Aegisthus, split him open with an axe.

This could purely informational or this could be oratory, but it’s certainly not the orison which starts and ends the speech. I’m not suggesting there is one interpretation. But the director has to choose one way or the other. I’m not sure Ms. Perlot ever does choose. It’s not completely down to the actors, because this same mix of levels recurs throughout the play enough to be a structural element.

Then there are times where I really, really wish the play would elevate to the level of oratorio. There is a moment after the messenger delivers the word that Orestes is dead where Electra and Chorus lament together. The actors here do a fine job of listening to each other as they trade off not just words but also sounds and gestures. It’s inspired and beautiful and evocative. And I wish they’d go just that much further, all the way into pure music. On the night I saw the production the actors seemed to be holding back, as though they could sense where they wanted to go but couldn’t get there. I’m hoping by now they’ve pulled out the stops.

I think this is a cast that can do it.

Last I saw Elex Hill was as a tour guide in Harlequin‘s production of Middletown. Though she was surrounded by an excellent cast and struck me as perfectly capable, that role didn’t give her a whole lot to do. With her portrayal of Electra I can see a little more what kind of an actor she is. She is an emotionally explosive actor with some sharp edges and she tries to do more with less. She makes a very good Electra that, with some clarity of direction, could be truly powerful.

I’ve been watching Emma Broback for a couple of years now, too. She’s always had a lovely voice and she handles prose text well even in a play like N3RD, which was just a bit too twee for me. This time out I was impressed highly by the way she moves. While the rest of the cast are much more naturalistic with their movements, Ms. Broback has stylized her movements to a high degree. I appreciated this interpretation; it gives her role as the chorus a distinct and discrete part in the drama where she is partly in, partly of, and yet largely outside the production, which I think is an excellent approach for the Sophoclesian chorus who seem at times to be conservative roadblocks and at others to be absolutely sympathetic allies. Shifting back and forth between these functions as effortlessly as Ms. Broback does is admirable, and anchors the other actors around her.

Ai Nguyen’s performance reminds me a little of Coleridge’s quote that watching Kean perform was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. With Ms. Nguyen it’s a little more like watching a flickering fluorescent bulb. No one will doubt her beauty or her stage presence. When she enters she absolutely commands the stage. She has a good voice, a subtle voice, but then her Clytemnestra could whisper half of her performance and she would still control the drama. The flickering feeling, I think, comes back to the essential problem of not deciding what level of speech the play is on at various points.

For me, Clytemnestra is a desperate woman, rather than a wicked one. Like every character in the house of Atreus (both by blood and by location), she is caught in what Richmond Lattimore called a cycle of “murder committed not against an external enemy, but against a part of the self.” True, she has killed her husband. More importantly, she has killed a king. Yet she has very sound reasons (I hesitate to say “good”) to demand blood justice for her husband’s killing of their own daughter–her husband, after all, is not her blood; her daughter is. So what is the function of her dialogue with Electra? Is it purely informative? Is it poetic pleading and thus oratory? And if it’s oration, why is she trying to convince her daughter, and of what? Does she want Electra’s love and acceptance, or merely her silence?

This is extremely difficult to answer within the production. Ms. Nguyen seems to alternate between fear of Electra (and by proxy of Orestes) and a sort of smug inviolability. Both of these make sense and are definitely present in the text. What’s missing is genuine love and tenderness. It comes out in flashes, like lightning, but its purpose is just as mysterious as nature. When Clytemnestra hears of Orestes’ death, she is relieved–understandably–but I think she also needs to be maternal in a very particular way toward Electra, telling her effectively, “Look, your revenge fantasy is over. Now can we be a family again?” Ms. Nguyen handles the first half of that mixed emotion quite well. The second half of that emotion sometimes goes begging. Again, I think some of this is down to Ms. Perlot and some to my having seen the piece early in the run. It may work itself out. I certainly hope so.

As it stood on the night I saw it, the ending of the play was a bit of a muddle. In the director’s defense, it’s an extremely enigmatic ending. In The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, which is essentially the same story, the play ends with Orestes being chased by the Furies. The cycle of blood is not yet at an end. In Sophocles’ version the action stops with Aegisthus entering the house for the last time. The question then is: Has the cycle of blood ended, according to Sophocles? Or, more importantly, to Ms. Perlot? I don’t have an answer to this. I don’t think Ms. Perlot does either. Yet a successful production hinges on this.

I’ve seen the play probably a dozen times in my life and I’ve seen a dozen different things tried. In the London production I saw the sound design went completely silent as Orestes and Aegisthus went into the house, then became very dark and ominous. Decision: clearly not the end of the blood cycle. I’ve also seen the entire cast except for Orestes and Aegisthus surround the body of Clytemnestra, led by Electra, weeping. Decision: clearly the end. Both were effective. Both answered the question. I should like Ms. Perlot to answer the question with similar effect.

I do not intend to diminish Ms. Perlot’s efforts. She’s blessed with a fine cast and herself obviously has an excellent eye for balancing the action and extending the stage non-traditionally. She also has a fine crew of designers, especially Isabel Martin, whose costumes are excellent symbolically as well as functionally. I’m delighted, in fact, that it’s as good as it is, but I think with this collection of talent she could do even better. I am well aware Sophocles hasn’t given her anything explicit to work with where it would most. For that reason, everyone has to work just that much harder. Electra contains a couple of the finest female roles in the history of drama, but it’s an exceedingly difficult play to contextualize for a modern audience. The entire Greek idea of justice as both human and divine are largely alien on the contemporary stage. The language is difficult. It takes a Herculean (Sophoclean?) effort to pull it all together. Give Ms. Perlot and her cast some time and it may happen yet.

Theater review: ‘Electra', dir. Rachel Perlot

By Yasmeen Busse The UW Daily

Adapting Greek tragedies can be tricky. Their influence is unquestionable, but perhaps public interest in them is not. They feel a bit like relics of the past, waiting to be excavated and cleaned up for modern audiences. The choice of the UW Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) to put on Sophocles’ “Electra” for its first show of the season, with no remarkable updates, is a risky move that doesn’t entirely pay off.

“Electra” is a simple play about the nominal character’s desire to avenge her father, Agamemnon, who died at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra. This Greek tragedy is an unusual choice for UTS, as it seems to lack the passion, complexity, and major bloodshed of better-known Sophocles pieces like “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone.” While UTS’s production finds enough sensational family melodrama in its source material to whet the palate, it never fully satisfies.

The play opens with the secret return of Electra’s brother, Orestes, back from exile to avenge his father’s murder. As Orestes his revenge, Electra (Elex Hill) weeps and wails, mourning the loss of her father and damning her mother. The youthful Hill is fiery and passionate in her role, convincing the audience of her misery. Unfortunately, Electra seems to have but two emotions: anger and sadness. Her long-winded, hysteria-induced speeches lamenting the deceased Agamemnon and scorning her murderous mother that comprise the bulk of the play lack the nuance and emotional variance to sustain their effectiveness. Her incessant wailing — while faithful to the text — ultimately becomes tiresome.

Surprisingly, it is the supporting cast that adds depth to the play. Clytemnestra (Ai Nguyen) is cruel and cunning, but also displays fleeting moments of vulnerability, fearing her daughter’s dedication to avenge Agamemnon will end in her death. Chrysothemis (Victoria Kaetz), Electra’s obedient and impressionable sister, is sensitive, forgiving, and perhaps the most reasonable figure in the play. These characters do not develop extensively and are essentially tropes, but they offer nice contrast to the one-note Electra. Their stark differences add dimension and heighten the drama of the piece.

The set is minimalistic, with only glass bowls of flowers scattered on white marble steps, and an altar in the middle of the audience, where characters often go to pray to the gods. It feels exposed, allowing the intensity of Electra’s inner turmoil and her strained familial relationships to fill the space with tension. At a critical moment, the show redeems itself, and the question at the heart of the play is posed. To what lengths are we willing to go to exact revenge, and at what cost? It is in these last few minutes that Electra’s unshakable devotion to her father begins to waver, and she possibly begins to feel remorse as a consequence of her rage-fueled choices. It is a long overdue change in tone that, while dismal, is the highlight of the night.

Greek drama is still relevant, but it requires deft work to make that apparent. UTS’ “Electra” would have fared better with a more contemporary update, but its faithful rendition is an admirable effort that delivers enough drama to hold audiences over until the company’s next production.

The verdict: “Electra” emits sparks, but UTS needs to turn up the voltage.

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Not All Who Are Lost Wander: On The Verge

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

I’ve admired Rosalind Phelps’ work over the past couple of years and decided a long time ago that I’d happily see anything in which she was involved. When I saw she was directing On the Verge as her undergraduate farewell, naturally I was curious.

On a simple level it makes sense. As a director Ms. Phelps has always been drawn to plays with heightened language. She also has a penchant for plays with women who have complex, messy relationships with each other and the world around them. On the Verge has both of those qualities. Furthermore, as a tale of three female explorers in search of Terra Incognita set against a background of women who serve as a modified Greek chorus and a token male character, the play gives all the women of the UTS a chance to strut their stuff.

And strut they do. I am deeply impressed by Kellyn Traenkenschuh this time around, especially with her strong and lovely voice. Of the three leads, Fanny’s character is the most conservative and so having such a strong performance by Ms. Traenkenschuh to anchor the show helps immensely. Ms. Traenkenschuh’s strong handling of the play’s language gives the other actors something they can play against for contrast, which they do well.

Sylvia Kowalski has always been sensitive with her decision-making when she supports other actors around her, and has generally made everyone around her look much better–an excellent quality in a young actor. Seeing her in this role, however, is surprising and delightful. I am particularly taken with her comic sense. Her timing isn’t quite yet impeccable but her obvious joy at messing around and withholding the full force of her wit until it all seems right makes up this. I’d love to see her do more straightforward comedy, as I think she will excel at it.

In many ways, Erica Ream has the hardest role of them all. Mary’s character is restless, relentless, matter-of-fact, progressive yet somehow stiff. She is the woman in the middle. Where Alexandra as played by Ms. Kowalski is a bit on the dopey side of the absent-minded professor type, and Fanny in Ms. Traenkenschuh’s hands is eternally firm, dogmatic, even reactionary, Ms. Ream’s Fanny has to balance everything. She is adventurous yet cautious. She is prim yet finds no problem talking about prurient things. In short, she is the sum of contradictions lived by women in the Gilded Age. I think Ms. Ream does admirably under the circumstances. She moves well. Her characterization of Mary as peacemaker works well enough. Though the language of the play sometimes trips her, I think her vocal approach to the text is very good. She adds wonderful details of business to her character as though they are the most natural things in the world. And of course she has a lovely stage presence.

I think Ms. Phelps’ pacing and blocking are excellent within the constraints of the Cabaret space. I also like the overall design of the piece. Karen Huang, Eloise Perrochet, Isabel Martin, Iris Kuo, Robyn Lautenbacher and Mairin Hackett have collaborated to create an environment in which one’s imagination does most of the work. The stark white costumes of the chorus and the minimalistic set, together with Sam Jones’ lighting, make the three explorers stand out of place even more than they are, as their highly detailed costumes contrast with the overall abstraction. I love this approach, of course.

And yet…something nags at me in this production.

I’ve liked much of Eric Overmyer’s television work. I was a big fan of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which, like most of his work, relies upon sharp, witty dialogue, delicate human interactions, and a keen eye for wit in mundane life. In the wasteland of late 80s television, those qualities were extremely refreshing. He later parlayed the same skill for dialogue and human interest on Homicide and Law & Order, shows whose reputations are quite secure.

His work for the camera tends toward restraint, yet whenever he writes for the stage his work tends toward excess. He abandons the language that he would use in his screenplays for a kind of florid verbiage that sounds like nothing so much as second-rate Tom Stoppard. His usual penchant for subtlety goes out the window, dangling from the high storey by its fingers. His recycling of pop culture quiddities speeds from quaint to quizzical and then, ultimately, to queasy. Everything is overblown, stretched to its rending point then beyond.

On the Verge has these problems in trump. I’d be willing to forgive them if I could just sit back and think, “Hey, it’s a rollercoaster!” But I can’t. Not here. It is a rollercoaster. But it’s a rollercoaster with pretensions. Three women explorers moving forward into the future toward the birth of rock and roll seems straightforward enough. Until you realize that two of them stay there. Why? Well, because boys, of course. And money. And because it’s “comfortable.”

The playwright asks me to accept that two women will settle down and become good little American girls in the 1950s because they finally achieve a sense of belonging in a world that, despite their efforts to carve out a new place for women in the American psychological wilderness, still features men completely in control of their fantasies and values. The intrepid explorers supposedly are drawn in and effectively domesticated. I’m not buying it. These women have spent much of their adult lives traveling the world because it’s there and to go there is the reward of their lives. Why then should I accept that the presence of dashing men in their lives would satisfy their wanderlust? Even Fanny who is already married at the beginning of the play does not seem the type. The explanation given is that she’s missing her husband and apparently needs a man in her life because she is tired and sad. Very touching–and in context utterly bogus. It suggests that Fanny is not so much an explorer as she is a bored housewife and a dilettante.

Yet the way I read it, the whirlpool that Fanny finds so fascinating and comfortable is not merely a bath. It is a seduction. It is an attempt to submerge female wanderlust into the promise of comfort, as if comfort were the goal of life. Alexandra’s seduction via fame and wealth is exactly the same. Only Mary seems to be able to steer between the Scylla of whirlpool baths and the Charybdis of a pop music career and keep to her path.

I’m not suggesting these are not options for women. I am suggesting that even in the 1950s they were not the only ones, and that for these two characters, in this play, to settle for them turns the action of the play toward tragedy instead of light rollercoaster comedy. This is not the tone that Ms. Phelps establishes on stage. I’m not sure any director in the city could establish such a tone. The play spends so much time on the quest that when it shifts into arrival it stultifies. It shifts quickly away from seeking into belonging, making the entire play seem phony.

I’m not against phoniness as such, but if one is going to be phony it’s best not to try to be serious and cheapen the reality beyond the page. The reality remains that women are seduced every day by the same claims toward comfort. This comfort is male-defined and male-controlled. With Mr. Overmyers penchant for language, I’d be surprised if he didn’t know that the word “verge” comes from “rod.” The image is not feminine, but phallic. His explorers are on the verge not only of new lands and new civilizations à la Star Trek. They are on the borderland between masculine and feminine, whatever those words mean. There is nothing particularly feminist about letting men be the reason for anything. Nor is there anything particularly feminist about the claim that giving in to consumer culture is a proper end for one’s life-long quest. That is a verge any sensible female of any era would, I think, avoid.

Theater review: 'On The Verge', dir. Rosalind Phelps

By Kathryn Altena The UW Daily

Full of wit and wordplay, three women explorers make their way through the last uncharted region of the world, Terra Incognita, and into the future. “On the Verge,” the UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society’s final show of the 2014-15 season, follows the friends as they time travel from the Victorian age to 1955, puzzled by objects from modern times.

Mary (Erica Ream), Alexandra (Sylvia Kowalski), and Fanny (Kellyn Traenkenschuh) are three experienced travelers, pulled together for this strange, new adventure. All three women are talented actresses, capable of leading the entire play almost flawlessly with only a few flubs here and there.

However, Alexandra steals the show. With her mixing up of words, like confusing famous for famished, her osmosis of lyrics and jingles from the future, and her general quirky nature, she brings humor and entertainment at each step of the journey.

Some questions, like how these women ended up together in the first place, remain unanswered, but the rest of the play overshadows these concerns.

From the discovery of an “I Like Ike” button to Cool Whip, the three women, with their petticoats, pith helmets, and hiking backpacks, travel through various locations and times, encountering eight characters, all played by the same actor (Jake Lemberg). From an “amicable cannibal,” to a baby yeti, to a rapping bridge troll, the three see it all on their romp through time.

Not all the characters encountered along the way help move the plot along, but they do add to the trials and tribulations Mary, Alex, and Fanny face.

To change scenes, the chorus, dressed all in white, work to create a rope bridge, a stream, a swamp, and a jungle, just to name a few. These actors provide the animal and nature sounds and help narrate the play. With a small cast, the minimalist nature of the setting and costumes complements the overall feeling of the play, using everyday objects like lunch trays and umbrellas to transform the stage.

While clocking in at two hours and 30 minutes, “On the Verge” keeps audiences entertained through plenty of pop culture references, puns, and clever wordplay. Between their real-time explorations, each of the women trade off presenting short monologues about their previous travels.

Humorous elements like trying to “osmose” and absorb elements of the future, the first taste of Cool Whip, or arguments about the benefits and downfalls of trousers help to keep the play moving forward.

The friendship and bond between the three explorers is convincing. Yes, the play is lengthy, but by the time it ends, it’s hard to not feel for the characters. Trekking through the mystery that is the future, the trio marches on.

The verdict: “On The Verge” is a lengthy, yet amusing tale of three women explorers venturing through time. Go for Alexandra, stay for the Cool Whip of 1955.

Shimmying and Shaking

By Mobird

In my last review of UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society, I covered The Picture of Dorian Gray, stating that this is a wonderful group, on par with the Paramount and many Broadway-level companies. Cabaret doesn’t fail to live up to the standard they set in my last review; it shimmied and shook its way above it.

Cabaret is delightfully sexy, adult, playful, dramatic, and sobering. The music is delivered gorgeously; Taige Kussman’s sultry, rich mezzo/alto was the perfect fit for main character Sally Bowle’s English accent and the setting of the Kit Kat Club. This show takes you on a journey far from where you sat down, leaving all your troubles behind you.

The acting is simply delightful. From the accents to the sultry movements of the actors, I was entranced. Be warned, however, this show gets mature, covering domestic abuse, the realm of Nazis, and sex workers. Other than that, this show is yet another great production from a fantastic company. Bravo, and well done.

Theater review: ‘Cabaret,’ dir. Elizabeth Schiffler

By Aleenah Ansari The UW Daily

The UW Undergraduate Theater Society is taking us to 1930s Berlin in their production of “Cabaret.”

The story begins when the master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club invites the audience to leave their troubles at the door for three hours and retreat into a world where worries are limited.

Characters enter from every corner of the theater, winking and grinning with confidence. Brave souls can sit at tables on set and interact with actors as part of the show. A simple bop on the head or invitation to fill the tip jar from the cast immediately transitions the show from a performance to an experience.

The show’s ostensible light-hearted nature is one facet in a broader historical context of the 1930s, where political conflict looms around every corner. “Cabaret” portrays political satire and escapist entertainment through music and dance performances common in German cabarets. The cabaret served as an outlet for free expression and sustaining denial of the harsh reality beyond its doors.

The musical follows performer Sally Bowles (Taige Kussman) and her relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nathan Wornian). Sally’s story is about survival amid the dire situation beyond their microcosm. She shares that story through her musical performances, which reveal the vulnerability of her character. Her career at the club is far from perfect, but it is her home.

The set brings the spectators closer to the reality of the show, but it may not be the most comfortable for sheepish audience members. Thankfully, people can choose to sit in the risers if they just want to watch.

Perhaps the point of the show is to make the audience a little uncomfortable. “Cabaret” brings the reality of life in Germany during the 1930s into focus, a time when a nationalist party is coming to power. There is a difficult balance achieved here; the musical is able to portray the heavy history of life under the Nazi regime without making you uncomfortable or squeamish. The subtleties of the script are a reminder of the reality the “Cabaret” characters are trying so hard to ignore. Song lyrics and imagery are used to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world; the emcee performs with someone in a gorilla suit and ends with the line, “If you could see her through my eyes … she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Although Fräulein Schneider (Rosalind Phelps) was not the main character, Phelps’ performance stole the show. It made me proud to watch the character lower her inhibitions throughout the show and begin to accept a life she deserved. Phelps’ melodic voice and convincing acting reflected her emotions with ease. Her character radiates strength and authority while maintaining affection for her loved ones.

Other performances were less convincing. The dynamic between Wornian and Kussman often seemed forced, despite a verbal profession of love between the characters. It is understandable that Kussman’s Sally struggles to develop meaningful connections since she is used to people coming and going in her life. However, I would have liked to see a more overt expression of emotion from Kussman, particularly because her story is central to the plot.

“Cabaret” shares a powerful story with some less-than-compelling characters. The show highlights a familiar historical period with a new perspective on an often overlooked community: cabaret performers. Instead of a broad and superficial history lesson, the audience will experience emotions on a more profound level. There are some actors who convey those emotions more effectively, and these are the gems.

The verdict: Although there are some rough patches, the performance has moments of superb acting and an ability to evoke empathy that justifies the price tag.

With Conviction: Yellow Face

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

Some critics whom I respect and many reviewers I do not refuse to write about student theater productions. Just as they have their reasons for not doing so, I have mine for continuing to write.

The first reason is that student productions are often rough in the best sense, and I believe with Peter Brook that, whenever theater is in danger of reducing itself to complete irrelevance, the Rough Theater saves the day. Students ought to be encouraged down this road as often as possible, especially by people outside of their own circles. The second reason is that students are much more likely to gamble on material that our commercial theaters view as too risky–which usually means something that won’t make them lots of money, or get them a glowing review by the conservative reviewers about town, who prefer to wax rhapsodic over vapid musicals and melodramas and who consider anything remotely emotional to be a mark of self-indulgence.

The other reason is that students incline toward making work that is personally important to them. It is important for them to do good work, but it is also important to do work that doesn’t personally bore them, work that they find speaks to them and their lives not just as actors but as people. This personal identification gives them a certain passion that, properly focused, helps to create a truthful immediacy rather than a mere earnestness. It makes it possible to play with conviction.

In this UTS production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, most of that passion is properly focused. Obviously young Asian American actors have a personal investment in discussing racism in American theater–and American society in general. No one will doubt their sincerity. What makes the production work, though, is that it is a deadly serious subject played with a high tone of farce. The mix of tones in the play prevents it from becoming too earnest, and Elizabeth Wu’s direction keeps the play moving by keeping it simple.

The overall conception of the production as a series of moving vignettes is perhaps more suited to discuss Asian American stereotypes derived from film, but these screens are not the silver screens of cinema. They are closer to the screens of Chinese shadow puppetry–itself an effective metaphor for a play about not seeing things as they are. Andrew Guy’s lights and Kayla Dreysse’s modular scene design are elegant and helpful.

Ms. Wu is also blessed to have a fine young cast who are committed to the play and its meaning. Mikko Juan plays the DHH role with a good mix of self-righteousness and self-awareness that helps the audience understand that the play’s theme is more complex than it might first appear. Despite a certain vocal weakness, Season Qiu gives his character of Henry a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal. Simon Tran is, as usual, delightful to watch in his multiple characters, as are Cory Lee and Peter Sakowicz. Anna Saephan and Gabrielle Boettner are capable enough in their mutiple roles but their roles make me a little sad that the playwright hasn’t given his female characters much to do. They are both truly beautiful young ladies and both have voices and stage presence, but they are waiting for the right piece to come along and showcase their true talents. I hope they do not have to wait too long.

I’m a bit less fond of Mickey McDonell’s portrayal of Marcus but in fairness the character is formidable to portray. Play him too tenderly and he descends quickly into bathos. Portray him too directly and audiences may miss the point. He has to seem like a fictional character, but a believable one. Mr. McDonell splits the difference but a bit too unevenly toward bathos, which weakens his portrayal, but I’d be a brute to chide him for it too harshly. As he matures as an actor, I suspect he will learn to split his differences much more aptly.

Still, as an ensemble, all of the actors work quite well together and this is a capable production of a good play. And it’s truly lovely to see a new generation of non-WASPy actors take on a work about the problems of being a non-WASPy actor. In Seattle, clearly we need to prepare our young minority actors for this and–lest there be another Mikado incident or even worse–we need to remind non-minority audiences, too.

Theater Review: Yellow Face

By Maria Giakoumatos The UW Daily

Have you ever faced discrimination for the color of your skin? The shape of your eyes? Then you will understand the struggles of the characters in “Yellow Face.”

The UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) brings you their latest production “Yellow Face,” directed by Elizabeth Wu: a semi-autobiographical play written by David Henry Hwang, using himself as the main character.

David Henry Hwang (Mikko Juan), a successful Asian-American playwright, is fed up with White people continuously playing Asian characters in plays, finding it to be a case of racial discrimination; a case he is all too familiar with. After protesting a white actor playing an Asian role in the play “Miss Saigon” — which actually happened in reality — Hwang writes his own play “Face Value” to specifically cast an Asian to play the lead role of an Asian male protagonist. However, this plan backfires when Hwang accidentally casts Marcus G. Dahlman (Mickey McDonell), a white man, to play the lead.

Throughout the play, Hwang struggles to justify his decision of casting Marcus, claiming he is a Siberian Jew, thus making him Asian. He becomes so obsessed with casting Asian-Americans in the media that he becomes buried under his own hypocrisy of racism against Marcus, whom he discriminates against for not being a “real” Asian. When Hwang’s father and the Chinese-American community faces investigation by the U.S. government due to racial profiling, Hwang is forced to accept that his desire to overcome racism in the media has driven him away from the community that he longs to bring equality.

The play’s setting is fittingly simple; not because it’s held in a small theater room, but because “Yellow Face” does not need any colorful scenes or flashy costumes to tell its story. The scenery consists of rolling wooden boards and cloths, which literally put the play in motion as the non-present cast members rearrange the boards to indicate scene changes and artistically cast shadows and introduce characters. The actors work with the room size to create an intimate experience with the viewers, often looking and speaking directly to them in monologues and occasionally placing cast members in the audience. The actors also create intimate experiences with each other: a phone call is not just two characters standing on opposite ends of the room, but interacting with each other side by side, as if actually speaking in person, to create a more artistic, believable, and interesting approach to an ordinary act.

The characters are dressed as any businessperson from the 1990s and don’t need any crazy accessories to further personify them. “Yellow Face” is almost entirely driven by the passionate debates in the dialogue. Juan demonstrates an impressive range of emotions as he portrays Hwang’s frustration and struggles against McDonell’s character Marcus, who is calm, quiet, and humble. Along with moving boards, scenes also move through narrated newspaper headlines. They not only inform the viewers of the date and situation, but also set the mood of the next scene depending on the topic of the headline.

On the surface, “Yellow Face” is a play about racism against Asian-Americans, bringing light to the lesser-known discrimination against Asians in the U.S. However, the play goes a step further by digging into Hwang’s internal struggles against Marcus, who becomes an activist in the local Asian community that Hwang is consistently absent from. In order to save the Asian community, Hwang learns the importance of rising above racism to become the person you dream to be.

The verdict: “Yellow Face” offers a touching, well-produced look at an overlooked issue.

A Wild Take on Wilde: Review of the Picture of Dorian Gray

TeenTix: Literature, Theater

Oscar Wilde wrote some amazing stuff, from “Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world” from "The Critic as Artist" to “Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?” from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

There is nothing so real as words — they toy with one’s senses until the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred or dissolved altogether, as was my experience with the UW Undergraduate Theater Society’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, from Wilde's famous novel. The production was flawless, the acting impeccable, and the terror palpable. In such a small space as the Cabaret in Hutchinson Hall on the UW campus, one would expect something akin to a technically simple, classic rendition of Shakespeare. Instead, what I found was some of the best lighting, set design, acting, and directing I have seen in quite some time. Technically, this production rivaled the 5th Avenue Theatre, the Paramount, and ACT.

As for the content of this play, though, I had a few issues with it. My main issue was that it got so dark and so creepy by the intermission that I had to leave because I was terrified because – due to how flawless the production was — it seemed too real. I definitely recommend this for viewers 17 and older, however bear in mind that it scared the crap out of both me and my boyfriend in under an hour and a half. My other issue was simply the jump scares. It does have plenty of those in it, as well as having people in your personal space at times, so if you are sensitive to those things at all, be warned that there is a lot of that.

The characters are delightful: Harriett (Sarah Priddy) is altruistic and self-absorbed to a fault. Dorian (Holly Griffith)… well, he lost his soul. Basil (Jake Lemberg) is really rather loveable. And Francis (Hal Schrieve) I will leave to you to figure out. All in all, however, this was a thought-provoking, conversation-starting, all too real, and very gorgeous production.

Theater Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Eleanor Cummins The UW Daily

I once read that the best student films are in black and white. The muted tones drown out the visual noise and the inevitable mistakes that often accompany a first-time or small-scale production.

The UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) isn’t making movies, but it applies this principle anyway. Its productions are in a black box theater. They are intimate, sparse, and emphasize the performances, not the minor details.

The latest production from UTS, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” makes the most of its space, performing theater-in-the-round. Actors enter from four directions and move in a way that ensures each seat a different view. This is the play’s greatest strength, but also its clearest liability.

The actors engage with the audience, crawling up, and at times almost on, those sitting in the stands. While this ensures peak attention, it can cause discomfort among those of us afraid of sustained eye contact with strangers, which from my experience at UW, is the vast majority of Huskies.

If a ticket-holder is willing to look past — quite literally — the forced intimacy with the cast, they will find themselves enveloped in a bizarre, but thought-provoking, world.

The play is adapted by Neil Bartlett, who used words directly from the original novel by Oscar Wilde. It tells the story of Dorian Gray, (Holly Griffith) a beautiful young man living in 19th-century England, who comes to believe the only thing that matters is beauty.

UTS strayed from the Wilde and the Bartlett text in one key way: It made the remarkable and admittedly wonderful decision to transform the original character Lord Henry Wotton into Lady Harriett Wotton (Sarah Priddy).

Harriett’s primary role is that of a self-assured aristocrat with nihilistic philosophical theories on everything under the sun. She is the one who pushes Dorian to believe in the supremacy of beauty, a conviction that leads Dorian to commit terrible acts that haunt him and the audience alike.

Though several other cast performances are lost in the play’s psychological swirl, Priddy demands your attention.

Priddy’s Harriett has all the self-confidence of a Kardashian, coupled with the heady cadence of Katherine Hepburn. The script requires she pontificate on her personal philosophy ad nauseum, but Priddy manages to tame the text.

Her words are especially compelling because they are those of a Victorian man. She is authoritative and brusque, which makes her seem like a feminist, ahead of her time. But she is also dismissive of her gender with harsh comments like: “Women can’t be geniuses.”

While no one would ever want to adopt the beliefs of the characters in the play, their perspectives are interesting and unique. UTS effectively builds on this compelling script to create a dissociative space and an entertaining night of theater.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Blair Peters Drama in the Hood

Well! UW’s Undergraduate Theatre Society brings life to Neil Bartlett’s cunning–if a bit dry–adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s beloved novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. With strong directing and gender-blind casting, this is a production that, while short of perfection, is well worth experiencing.

While the cast is hit-or-miss–allowances must be made, for these are students, after all–the actors’ strengths and weaknesses match those of their characters wonderfully. Sarah Priddy’s Lady Harriett Wotton (a seamless, delightful, and compelling gender-swap from Wilde’s Lord Henry) is breath-taking in her unflappably cruel and jocular aestheticism. Basil Hallward, awkward and unsure of himself as he is, comes realistically to life in the form of Jake Lemberg, whose hesitant and uncomfortable stylings are just too perfect. Holly Griffith, who plays the show’s namesake, in many ways allows the audience to see a side of Gray that the other characters don’t. She brings a curious petulance to the character which is very unlike the gracious and charming Gray of the novel, but somehow believable, comprehensible, and almost–almost–likeable. The chorus was largely dynamic and committed, and among them was Hal Schrieve, whose portrayal of a servant and, it seemed to me, a kind of Oscar Wilde stand-in narrator, was eerily provocative and very enjoyable.

As the play opened, I whispered a silent ‘Thank you’ to the actors for largely not attempting English dialects. Vaguely upper-class suits this production just fine.

The strength of the production lies primarily in the direction (Rachel Perlot). With a script that leaves the narrative just a little contrived, just a bit lacking juice, just slightly wanting in the prosaic beauty of Wilde’s own narrative, Perlot creates a drama that unfolds gracefully, with surprises hidden around corners even for those already familiar with the story. The stage lies in the middle of four sets of seating on each side, like a stadium ring, and each of the four corners are used as entrances and exits by the actors, and there is a sense both of surrounding the action, and being ourselves surrounded by it. Perlot makes elegant use of this situation to create both uncomfortably intimate spaces, in which the audience is left to feel as if we were eavesdropping, and also wild, almost orgiastic spaces in which the audience is made to give in to fear and passion.

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray will play at UW’s Hutchinson Hall in the Cabaret Theatre from December 3-7 at 7:30pm. For tickets, please visit

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom and the Broadly Thin Line

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

Horror has a long tradition in the cinema and an even longer tradition in literature. Those traditions also feed the popularity of the survival horror video game. These three traditions of horror rely upon two prime techniques: environmental immersion and controlled perspective. The creators define the totality of what an audience can see, which largely directs how the audience feels and reacts.

Theater lacks this tradition because it lacks that total control necessary to the cinematic/literary effect. With a passive audience sitting in neatly arranged seats in an antiseptic environment, the whole ambience screams out its phoniness. Even under the best of circumstances a playwright, director and cast face an incredible challenge to rivet the audience and direct their attention and, more importantly for horror, their inattention. Andy Nyman, author of the long-running Ghost Stories makes the point: “What a clever horror stage production does is to remind the audience that the sense of danger is as real to you as it is to the people on stage.” Which is swell, if one can actually make it happen–a rare feat in the contemporary theater.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom attempts to make it. Jennifer Haley’s plays, I think, pretend to be the theatrical equivalent of slipstream horror literature. Comic books + horror + theater. Video games + horror + theater. Mash ‘em up and see what comes out. The problem is that where slipstream fiction evokes the tropes of various genres, its main approach is to evoke the trope in order to explode it. The line between deadpan irony, pastiche, serious fiction, and parody is often thin. And there’s the problem with Neighborhood 3: the lines here are anything but thin. They are broad swaths, as broad as the aerosol paint graffiti in GTA: San Andreas. N3RD evokes the tropes of survival horror videogames in a theatrical setting, as a slipstream fiction might, but it doesn’t explode them, it sits on them.

The text gives a director and cast far too many opportunities to be vague in interpretation. In fact, it practically begs them to do so as Ms. Haley refuses to personify her characters as individual persons. Instead, they are types, literally indicated as such: Father Type, Son Type, Mother Type, Daughter Type. Beyond this, the script also lacks a moral compass. Is it a cautionary tale about virtual reality? Is it a statement on the exaggeration of dangers of games meant to show their ultimate harmlessness? Is it a wink-wink-nudge-nudge self-aware parody by hip young actors making fun of the lowbrow form of videogames with the highbrow theater? Or, in the ultimate moral cop-out, is it “just a story”? This isn’t an idly rhetorical question. The whole point of horror is to explore morality via mortality. Think Hostel. Think Frankenstein. Or, if you’re inclined to videogames, think Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Silent Hill. All of these are moral explorations. I’m not convinced there’s any sort of moral exploration in N3RD. Refusing to distinguish between the videogame’s amoral universe and the ostensibly moral world of In Real Life strikes me as a major failure to identify dramatic material that would become crystal clear if one were to play any popular online game as a female character for about thirty minutes. Just ask Anita Sarkeesian.

So I went into the UW UTS production of Ms. Haley’s play knowing full well that the young actors would be up against it. And, predictably, the script’s various flaws are at the fore. Director Michael Joseph Hanley seems attracted to scripts that have an uncomfortably fragile mix of tones and attitudes, such as his earlier production of Dog Sees God. Here he has found a pretty good tempo for the piece overall, and his collaboration with the designers is very thoughtful. But he’s powerless against the altogether-too-smug dialogue and its moments of feeble post-ironic hipster humor.

The good news, however, is that he always seems to get the best out of his collaborators. This production is no exception. The cast here are wonderful and throw themselves completely into the task of making sense out of the mess. As a result, the piece becomes like a playground for the actors, in the best possible sense. Rosalind Phelps, particularly, is marvelous in her multiple roles. I’ve watched her many times over the past couple of years and here she has given easily her best performance. Her voice has grown much more supple and she finally seems comfortable enough with her body to characterize both adults and adolescents precisely. Given her array of characters, she shows great range and a real gift for extracting genuine comedy from the most straightforward moments. She has grown into a much better actress than I would ever have thought, and her excellent performance pushes the other actors to give their best as well.

And give they do. Dominic Racelis rises to the occasion here. His characters are clinical in their emotionless detachment–perfect for the tone that Mr. Hanley has set. His acting is sometimes too reserved, perhaps, but his presence on the stage has a catalytic effect that brings very fine moments out of his scene partners.

I do not recall seeing Emma Broback in anything except the 2012 production of Pippin, but I now wish I had seen much more of her on stage. She has a very fine script sense and she does very interesting things with only silence and facial expressions. She also connects very well with Mr. Racelis, but her scene with Rosalind Phelps as the rather timid teen against Ms. Phelps’ cynical and drunk suburban trophy wife is unforgettable in its wit.

As for Thomas Allen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his approach at first. Then it gradually occured to me that he was not playing the “types” Ms. Haley indicates in her script, but choosing his own much less obvious but still apropos characterizations. His Tobias, for instance, is extremely creepy because it’s played so straight, as though the actor is calling not on the audience’s stereotypes but rather on their unconscious archetypes. That’s usually the modus operandi of all truly great horror, and as a result Mr. Allen’s characters are the most truly horrifying ones in either their mindful strangeness or their mindless normality.

It’s a very fine ensemble. I do wish the playwright had given them more to work with. The superficiality of the script does not honor their skills. It certainly does not solve the riddle of how to present effective horror on a stage without turning the theater into a fully environmental haunted house. It is, however, pleasant enough to watch, completely predictable, but with an excellent display by an enthusiastic and talented cast. I look forward to seeing all of them again in something that matches their merits.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

By Indigo Trigg-Hauger The UW Daily

Please note this show is recommended for ages 13 and up. Be aware that there are strobe lights, loud noises, strong language, and graphic violence.

There’s something very special about making theater scary. When done well, plays can be genuinely frightening. It’s all the more effective because it’s live. The cast and crew of the Undergraduate Theater Society’s “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” (“N3RD”) pull it off very well, just in time for Halloween.

The play opens on a peaceful neighborhood, but we all know the drill: It’s not going to be peaceful for long. Parents and their kids are at odds, neither group able to understand the other, and a video game, N3RD, is at the heart of it all.

Lives of several residents of the neighborhood are fleshed out and intertwined, but there is exactly enough information missing to keep you guessing. Meanwhile, N3RD is always in the background, making you question exactly what’s going on. There are some twists and turns, but they are balanced enough to not completely throw you into the abyss of disbelief.

This show is fast-paced; it plays out like a concise horror film. And it’s clever. Those one-liners and meta in-jokes that are so hilarious in the horror genre are all here, delivered with oblivious, horror-character panache. Toeing the line of humor in horror can be difficult, but “N3RD” does it perfectly with a great script and excellent timing. The use of sound effects, music, video game voiceovers, and some well-placed special effects creates an ambience so immersive, I was tense from the first few minutes.

cast is phenomenal, playing a large number of characters so deftly that you might not even realize there are only four of them until the final curtain. They weave in and out of every scene effortlessly, always keeping the creepy factor high.

Rosalind Phelps especially stood out, embodying each woman she played with some aspect of suburban desperation. And Dominic Racelis plays multi-faceted characters with skill that makes you both loathe and empathize with them.

They make it fun to watch people play a video game because there’s more at stake than leveling up. The kids talk to their friends, parents, and siblings as they mash away at their controllers, constructing a seriously messed-up world no one wants to inhabit. If you’ve ever lived in suburbia, you’ve gotten at least a little taste of the Stepford Wives-like atmosphere going on here.

The number of characters can be confusing sometimes. It was hard to remember who was who, but surprisingly this didn’t matter too much. It imparts the feeling that this is suburbia and everyone and everything is so similar anyway: Why bother trying to distinguish yourself?

The themes of the play sometimes veer into “But what about the children?” and “Kids these days” territory. There are plotlines about alcoholism, emotional abuse, growing up, and even sexuality. It can be a bit overwhelming, but those themes manage to coalesce by the end. If there is a lesson to be learned, it might be to connect more often with the people around you. But we’re not here to learn lessons, we’re here to feel our hearts pounding.

You will be tense and on your toes. “N3RD” might be a play, with the limited special effects that entails, but there are buckets of horror right until the last moments. Go if you’ve never been to a play that was supposed to be scary. It’s not as explicit as the movies, but it will still give you chills every time you see a claw hammer.

“Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” runs now until Nov. 2. Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for general.

The verdict: Go and get the pants scared off you with some well-placed laughs thrown in. “N3RD” is what you need on a dark and rainy night near Halloween.

UTS Opens Neighborhood 3 Just In Time for Halloween

By Mark Douglass Drama in the Hood

The Undergraduate Theater Society is an outlet for students among the 29,000 undergraduates with a passion for theater. In their season opener they present Jennifer Haley’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, or in the abbreviated world we inhabit—N3RD. Turn the 3 around and what do you get? The show is under the direction of Michael Joseph Hanley.

Haley’s themes focus on how technology affects our human interactions. She posed in the play a series of what-ifs: What if the setting for a video game exactly reproduced the neighborhood where it is played? What if there are wormholes that allows people to glide from the game to “reality” and back? Hit the blend button and you get N3RD.

The 4 member cast:Thomas Allen, Rosalind Phelps, Dominic Racelis, and Emma Broback played 16 characters! This is also about as many scene changes the run crew managed to pulloff.

This play touches on the controversial issue of the level of violence in some video games. There is a warning about language, violence and the mention of drug and alcohol abuse, and addiction to video games.

I had trouble tracking which family interaction a particular scene was about, but generally this is a horror play and follows the drill: there are some people (the teenagers) playing the game and thus know about wormholes, murderous zombies, and which house is the highest level and a means of escape; and then there are the clueless parents. Haley makes sure the parents stay clueless by making them all noble upholders of the domestic right of their children to privacy. They don’t enter bed rooms and would avoid reading their child’s blog if he or she wrote one.

The play was fun and at times thrilling or frightening, plus it raised questions which audience members might ponder later. Scenes moved rapidly along, the set changes were well choreographed. The tech teams (lights and sound) hit their cues perfectly. Most of the costuming is what you might expect for suburban families, but there is one game figure costume near the end of the play that is just terrific.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom by Jennifer Haley, directed by Michael Joseph Hanley. Suggested for ages 13 and over. Graphic violence, strong language, strobe lights & loud sounds. Run time 80 minutes with no intermission. An Undergraduate Theater Society Production. Cabaret Theater in Hutchinson Hall (on UW campus). Wed – Sun, 7:30 PM. Tickets are $5 students, $10 general, at or at the door. Closes Nov. 2.

2013 - 2014 season

Against Excellence: Dog Sees God

By Omar Willey The Seattle Star

A certain local luminary who is now ensconced in the University of Washington’s PATP program once asked me what I thought about excellence. My answer was direct: Excellence is overrated. She was shocked. Here I was, a critic of some twenty-six years’ experience, charged with judging excellence day in and day out–or so everyone thought. Yet I was saying that excellence, the holy word of artistic directors everywhere, was unimportant.

It’s time for me to go further. Excellence is not only overrated. In most uses it’s worthless. In others it is deleterious and completely misguided.

The UW Undergraduate Theater Society’s production of Dog Sees God is definitely not excellent. It is rough in the extreme. Bert Royal’s by now infamous tale of Peanuts characters gone bad does no one any favors with its messy script. It’s supposed to be a parody but it’s one of those parodies that sounds far better when you explain it to your buddy, preferably at about two in the morning after a long day as you both giggle yourselves to sleep. The play contains numerous shifts of tone and in its glibness does not offer firm answers about whether or not it is comedy, tragicomedy, or pasquinade. Given the problems of the text and the relative inexperience of the cast, director Michael Joseph Handley finds himself having bitten off more than he can chew.

Yet chew he does, and his actors chew right along with him. Alexandra Feinberg as CB’s sister gives a consistently fine and pliant performance on the night and so do Michael Monicatti and the exquisite Erica Ream. The rest are somewhat less consistent, sometimes because the text itself founders beneath them. The witty Sean Payne has a very strong physical presence that remains a bit of a blunt instrument. I have no doubt he will gain in subtlety and strength as he adds to his resume. Taigé Kussman has the complementary problem in that she has a fairly subtle vocal mechanism and handles text extremely well, but lacks a certain quality of presence–a strange thing to say about such a beautiful young lady. Dominic Racelis had a slight thinness of voice on the evening, but his timing is impeccable and his characterization of Van is, I think, spot on. Mariama Suwaneh’s performance combines simultaneously the flaws of the people around her and their strengths. She is clearly still growing but shows great promise, especially when she uses her marvelous voice to crisp and comic effect.

Throughout the play, Mr. Hanley wrestles with the script nobly if not handily. Some parts remain confusing. Some parts are flat. A couple scenes have the wrong mood entirely. At the same time, there are many times where things are very good. There are a few times when things are just right. And there are two scenes that are absolutely, truthfully beautiful, including a gorgeous interplay between Cameron Duckett and Erica Ream. It’s Mr. Duckett’s finest scene, where all of his strengths come to the fore and everything else subsides, and he and Ms. Ream clearly bring out the very best in each other. Those beautiful moments happen because the actors lose their self-consciousness, but also for another reason even more important–namely, that as young actors without a fully-stocked “bag of tricks,” they have no image in their heads of what such a moment “should” look like and so they simply try to find its truth by endeavor and empathy.

By contrast, an experienced director who prides himself on “excellence” would already have in mind an idea of exactly what such moments should look like in an “excellent” production. A veteran actor with a fully-stocked bag of tricks would know exactly what she would do in just such a scene. The roughness would disappear, replaced by a smooth, polished capital-E Excellence.

And there, in clear relief, is the problem with so-called excellence. What people generally mean by excellence is a certain level of predictability. This excellence operates under the guise of technique and craft. More often than not, however, that craft is a series of stereotyped actions and clichés derived from past productions and applied by rote to whatever problem faces an artist, without the slightest concern that they may be quite wrong. Some techniques may be valid in some productions. They may equally destroy productions where they are not. When push comes to shove, such “excellence” ruins students and student productions. It would be far, far better simply to leave them to their own devices and let the chips fall where they may. It is, after all, their time to learn.

Polish, in that vapid way devotees of excellence seem to believe, is not everything. It may even be worse than nothing. Unpolished coins still spend. Too much polish removes their identity–and their value. The same is true of theatrical productions. The UW productions are often at their most interesting when they are roughest. And whatever defenders of excellence may say, interesting trumps all.

Theater review: Dog Sees God

By Eleanor Cummins The Daily

Peanuts, well salted

The moment before a performer moves into the audience is always a tense one. The fear of being dramatically serenaded by an actor or receiving a jazz hand to the face is enough to make any theater-goer sweat. But when the cast of “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” climbed into the bleachers in an epic pre-party rap sequence, the only thing the audience braced itself for was laughter.

“Dog Sees God” is an “unauthorized parody” of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip “Peanuts.” In the play, Charlie Brown (Cameron Duckett), aka CB, and the gang are teenagers in crisis; dealing with death, drugs, sex, mental illness, and suicide.

Snoopy is dead, having contracted rabies and killed Woodstock (the bird) in a fit of rage. CB, devastated by the loss of his pet, probes the people around him in an attempt to get answers to the age-old question, “What do you think happens when you die?”

The script, written by Bert V. Royal in 2004, is a moving piece. Unlike the after-school specials of the ’90s, which addressed hot-button issues solely to “educate” viewers, “Dog Sees God” tries — and succeeds — to tell a story of America’s favorite comic strip kids and their struggles with growing up. There are places where the script falters in this regard (one too many of the characters has their sexuality called into question, with no real payoff), but the subject matter — raunchy, aggressive, and at times even beautiful — exists ultimately in service to the play’s larger goal: exploring the connections between these characters.

Performed by the Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) and directed by Michael Joseph Hanley, UW’s performance of the play capitalizes on these connections. The intimacy of the black box theater allows the audience to become completely absorbed in the play. The actors, though many shine brightly on their own, work best together, laughing, crying, and cursing up a storm on stage.

While a working knowledge of the original “Peanuts” strip is helpful, the sincerity of the performances — always character, never caricature — make the play powerful for even the least informed observer.

Duckett’s performance is limited in its emotional impact by the need for CB to serve as a lightning rod for conflict, rather than as the lightning itself. The storm is wrought instead by Beethoven (Michael Monicatti), the play’s equivalent to Schroeder, who strikes with electric intensity as a bullied teen who plays the piano through his pain.

The rest of the cast serves primarily to answer CB’s questions about an afterlife and to explore, in lesser detail, other ways of coping with the challenges of life. CB’s Sister (Alexandra Feinberg) and Van (Dominic Racelis), the play’s equivalent to Linus, provides much-needed comedic relief. The sister provides relief through exploring performance art in a strange and overwrought shtick about a platypus that finally pays off in the play’s final minutes, and Van by smoking and joking his way through the aftermath of the destruction of his childhood security blanket.

Much like the transition from childhood to adulthood, the shift from 2-D illustrations to a live performance is a tough one. But the members of UTS, along with the constituents of the “Peanuts” crew, make it through their respective tasks with an endearing blend of grit and grace.

“Dog Sees God” runs through June 8 in Hutchinson Hall’s Cabaret Theater. Tickets are $5 for UW students and $10 for the general public. For showtimes or to purchase tickets, visit

The verdict: A sight for sore eyes.

Charlie Brown Grew Up: Review of Dog Sees God at UW UTS

By Kelsey G. Teentix

If you ever wondered what happened when Charlie Brown got to high school, then you have to see Dog Sees God. The characters go by different names and love interests have been moved around, but it is easy to make the connections. That said, Dog Sees God goes down a completely different path than any Charlie Brown shows you have ever seen.

The play starts with CB dealing with the death of his dog, a beagle, which had to be put down because of rabies. After this loss he begins to ask his friends whether they believe in an afterlife, but none of them give satisfactory answers. His sister changes her personality every week, his friend Van is following the ways of Buddha, his ex-girlfriend (who is also Van’s sister) is in the mental ward for setting a girl’s hair on fire, his friend Matt is obsessed with sex and bullying Beethoven every chance he gets, and his friends Tricia and Marcy are too drunk to think straight. One day he finds himself in the music room, where Beethoven spends his lunch practicing piano because he cannot eat lunch in the lunchroom without being called gay, and after talking with Beethoven begins to think differently about his life and all he has ever done.

Dog Sees God is not for someone who wants a comedy. There are a few comical lines, like “May you always find peace and moistness,” and some hilarious dance scenes. However, there is violence, bullying, tears, and death. That said, this play is incredibly powerful and has so many levels people can connect with. The actors did such an amazing job conveying emotion and bringing the play to life that I almost cried. This play revolves around so many issues that are part of growing up and being a teenager that anyone who sees the play can relate to the characters, especially those in TeenTix.

From being bullied for being gay to always being predictable and “normal” this play has it all.

I have seen countless plays – many done by professionals – and I have never watched a play that moved me as much as this one. I am still thinking about it and would go again if I got the chance. If you want a play that you can connect with and that will make you think, feel, possibly cry, and yet give you a great feeling at the same time then you have to see Dog Sees God.

Dog Sees God

By Adria Olson Drama in the Hood

Dog Sees God opened at the Hutchinson Theatre this weekend, put on by the Undergraduate Theatre Society at the University of Washington. Dog Sees God is an entertaining piece about a high school student by the name of CB, whose dog dies at the beginning of the play, prompting him to begin to ask questions about the afterlife, and eventually questions about sexuality. The play, by Bert V. Royal, is a reimagining of the Peanuts characters and how Royal imagines the people they might be in high school. Though the play seems to be promoted as a play questioning issues of the afterlife, it seemed to be much more focused on questions of sexuality. I expected to walk out of the theatre thinking about different philosophies concerning the afterlife, but instead walked out of the theatre feeling heartbroken that there are LGBT students that face physical and verbal bullying everyday when they go to school.

Dog Sees God felt like a non-musical version of Spring Awakening, or perhaps a non-musical, non-sexist version of Grease: pouring alcohol into milk cartons in the cafeteria, having a party when someone’s parents are out of town, having a stoner best friend always smoking something or another. The hilarious cast had me laughing loudly at several parts, particularly at CB’s sister, played by Alexandra Feinberg. From the moment she walked on stage in a gothic outfit with a coffin-shaped purse, the audience knew she would be cracking us up whenever she was on stage— her confident and quirky stage presence was very refreshing.

While the cast was made up of likable actors and actresses, Cameron Duckett’s portrayal of CB and Michael Monicatti’s portrayal of Beethoven particularly stood out to me as the strongest performances. Duckett had a charming stage presence that had the audience rooting for him from the first scene. His character was distinctly different from his friends, in that while his friends are getting drunk in the cafeteria, he is questioning issues of the afterlife, religion, and social norms concerning sexuality. The other performance that particularly stuck out to me where Sean Payne’s portrayal of Matt (or Linus, as it were). He was eerily believable and fascinating to watch. His stage presence was bold and captivating.

The pacing of Beethoven’s character development was excellent: seeing the tip of the iceberg of the bullying and harassment he has faced, wondering where he goes to at lunch, seeing him play the piano as an escape, learning that he used to be friends with the other kids, learning what his dad did and why that ostracized Beethoven from the other kids. It was rhythmic and heartbreaking as it unfolded. Monicatti did a phenomenal job representing such a complex, confused, hurt character. He was bitter and wounded, but brave and quietly full of desire for a fresh start. The most poignant scene, a moment in the music room when he threw a folder of sheet music across the room at CB, sent a chill up my spine. It was incredibly powerful, as was the scene where Beethoven is excruciatingly beaten up by a homophobic bully. When CB initially speaks with Beethoven in the music room, he asks CB about whether he believes in an afterlife. Beethoven replies, “There has got to be some reward for living through all of this.” This was perhaps the most telling line of a play dealing with thoughts of death, the afterlife, bullying and sexuality.

The soundtrack to the play added a fun element. When the audience enters the theatre, they find the protagonist, CB, sitting in his backyard furiously writing a letter to a pen pal he used to write to as a child. The soundtrack of the play had an outdoor white noise track, where you heard air movement, rustling branches, an occasional airplane overhead. I had to put my coat on because I felt likeI was actually being chilled by a cool, crisp air. The set was simple but effective, taking place mainly in a backyard, a cafeteria, a music room, and a living room.

There did seem to be blocking issues that need to be addressed, though. There were certain points of the play where one side the audience was laughing because they caught a facial expression or subtle body movement that the other side of the audience missed. And vice versa. Maybe this is the price of live theatre— that not everybody gets to experience the play in the same way— but it seems like the blocking could have been more strategic.

I applaud the cast of Dog Sees God for putting on a great show that wrestles with important questions in an entertaining and emotional format.

Dog Sees God. The Cabaret Theatre in Hutchinson Hall. University of Washington Campus. Tickets bought at Brown Paper Tickets. Wed-Sun at 8pm. thru June 8.

The Daily play review: A Map of Virtue

By Danielle Palmer-Friedman The Daily

A feeling of unsettlement, emptiness, and confusion is often left over after waking from a complicated and intense dream. These are the same feelings left behind by “A Map of Virtue,” the Undergraduate Theater Society’s new production, directed by Rachel Perlot.

Perlot should immediately be commended for choosing to tackle such a complicated and obscure script. The show incorporates several different modes of storytelling: poetry, personal monologues, and traditional linear scenes. The effect is muddled, unclear yet obviously stirring.

The subject matter is ethereal in the best and worst of ways at the same time; the plot is captivating, but the overall experience is like an uncompleted game of connect-the-dots. The storyline begins at point A, quickly transforms, and transforms again, only to somehow find its way back to point A and beyond. The script tries to incorporate an excessive number of ideas into an hour and a half. The plot contains numerous themes and messages, so many that they are hard to keep track of and definitely hard to identify correctly. “A Map of Virtue,” with its frequent pregnant pauses and cryptic symbolism, is the definition of abstract.

But thankfully, quite unlike a game of connect-the-dots, “A Map of Virtue” does not provide a reward only to those who complete the puzzle. Rather, the play’s strength is in its power to make the audience feel change without letting them fully understand what it is, exactly, that has been altered. The show is truly a carefully mapped out journey, with many pit stops along the way, bringing the audience on a conceptual expedition. However, although the audience knows it has traveled, it remains unsure of what it has seen and unsure of what the destination is. Is virtue found? Is pestilence? The answer remains unclear. Regardless, “A Map of Virtue” leaves one contemplative and introspective, as any good show will do.

The cast shows great bravery in taking on such a heavy and bizarre script but, for the most part, delivers. At times, the actors strain themselves trying to convey the intense emotion saddled within the writing. They quickly recover, however, and end the play with strongly developed characters.

In particular, Michael Monicatti’s clear and confident performance carries the austerity of the production. His strong and consistent presence anchors the overall production, and the removed reverence of his character could be heard in each of Monicatti’s meticulously mapped-out syllables.

Likewise, Connor Mullaney was able to capture his character in a natural and impressive way: There was no disconnect between character and actor, no disconnect between the script and reality.

While “A Map of Virtue” is not intended for those who enjoy traditional, easily processed theater, it is a stunning performance that will captivate. The show does not concede easily to preconceived notions of theater and storytelling. The plot is strange, sudden, and left somewhat unexplained, but the overall effect is entertaining nonetheless. The story unfolds in a complex fashion, as each character confronts themselves and the world they live in, a world filled with curiosity, integrity, loyalty, love, and intuition.

“A Map of Virtue” opens tonight, Feb. 27 and runs until March 9. Shows start at 7:30 p.m.

The verdict: Awe-inspiring and confusing but rewarding nonetheless. Definitely worth the $5 ticket.

Reach reporter Danielle Palmer-Friedman at Twitter: @DanyellPF

The Daily play review: Reefer Madness

By Danielle Palmer-Friedman The Daily

Marijuana was long ago known as a dangerous, wicked substance that turned young, innocent teenagers into sex-crazed, immoral monsters. Now, the reputation of marijuana has changed: Instead of turning kids into criminals, apparently it turns them into singers and dancers. This phenomenon is perfectly depicted by the Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) in their new production of “Reefer Madness: The Musical.”

“Reefer Madness: The Musical” is a burlesque based on the 1936 educational film that was originally made to showcase the negative consequences of “doing pot.” The film extremely over-exaggerated the threat that was marijuana and likened the behavior of someone high on marijuana to that of someone using heroin or meth. Promiscuity, murder, and rape are all on the list of the inevitable dangers of marijuana.

As a country that has recently seen an extremely high acceptance of Mary Jane into everyday life, we’ve come a long way. Consider Judd Apatow and Seth MacFarlane: Both are media giants who continually infuse their content with pro-marijuana sentiments. And, living in a state where marijuana is now legal to those over the age of 21, weed’s former reputation seems all the more hilarious.

And in “Reefer Madness: The Musical,” the extremes depicted in the old anti-weed propaganda campaign are turned into true hilarity. The script is packed with satire that comments on the ridiculousness that used to be associated with weed. The jokes are funny because we’ve realized how off-base the original fear was. We’ve learned that marijuana is not going to cause anyone to murder their girlfriend or rape their grandmother. It will, however, still give you an incredible case of the munchies.

Besides relying on the irony of misinformation, the musical also relies on audacious and crude humor in order to invoke laughs. There are a lot of half-naked actors who gyrate on stage and even a brief yet unforgettable appearance by our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The production, much like the movie from which it stems, is ludicrous yet entertaining.

The musical demands a brave cast, and thankfully, UTS was able to deliver. Nathan Wornian in particular stands out from the rest: While his strength may not be singing, he is inevitably the most entertaining element of the show. He brings a certain vivacious aspect to his characters as well as a Charlie Day-esque comedy which is greatly appreciated.

Meanwhile, the other singers often fall short of their expected performances. Voices can be heard to falter and break, and sometimes harmony seems like a faraway dream. Despite their inability to make it a full song without a blaring error, the leads of Jimmy (Dominic Racelis) and Mary (Victoria Kaetz) are sufficiently engrossed within their roles, which is a great accomplishment considering the superficiality of their characters. Their performances are both touching and convincing.

The musical is redeemed by its comedic punch. It is nothing short of amusing; it will absolutely force you to laugh out loud at least once (if not three or four times). And this critic would even dare to assume that the show will become even more gratifying after a few devilish tokes of those marijuana cigarettes. So succumb to the reefer madness and enjoy the show.

“Reefer Madness: The Musical” opens today and runs until Sunday, Feb. 3. The show is being performed in the Cabaret Theater in Hutchinson Hall. Buy tickets online or at the door, starting at 6:30 p.m. on performance nights. Student tickets are $5, the show starts at 7:30 p.m.

The verdict: Everyone knows music and pot are a match made in heaven.

Idiosyncrasies of the Absurd:
Review of Woyzeck, Undergraduate Theater Society

By Kali Swenson TeenTix

Regarded as the first modern play, Woyzeck — written in 1836 by Georg Büchner — certainly embraces the idiosyncrasies of modern writing as it has come to be known. The Undergraduate Theater Society at the University of Washington takes on the fever dream of Franz Woyzeck’s life, complete with the fragmented scenes, impending sense of the absurd, and social commentary that have established this play’s long-running reputation.

I made the mistake of going into Woyzeck knowing absolutely nothing about this actually really well-known play. My complete lack of background knowledge and context left me baffled by the performance. I spent at least the first half of the play trying to mentally stitch the scenes together and wondered whether or not they were even in chronological order, given the absence of transitions. I had difficulty understanding scenes as they unfolded because my thoughts were still trying to make sense of the ones I had seen prior, and it took several scenes before I could gather a working idea of the world director Elizabeth Schiffler was portraying.

But once I realized the fragmentation of the play was part of its charm, I was able to more acutely focus on what was going on in front of me. And I highly doubt my confusion was a great as Franz Woyzeck’s himself. The titular character, a poor soldier in presumably the 1800s, is battling a lot of nonsensical forces beyond his control that cause him to lose control.

Cast into a hopeless life of poverty, Franz — played by Kevin Lin — is at the hands of those better-off than him. He is berated and made malnourished by the doctor who should actually be caring for him, deemed immoral by the military captain, and loses his wife’s loyalty to a drum major in the military. He doesn’t have much, if any, say in the circumstances of his life and begins to lose his mental faculty as a result.

My struggle to make sense of the scenes just seemed to be an echo of Franz trying to make sense of his life. Throughout the play, he becomes visibly more ill and his mental state falls apart. Though Woyzeck opens with Franz having an apocalyptic hallucination, it’s the last half hour of the play that is truly frightening.

Watching the throes of Franz’s madness, I feared the inevitable violence that would ensue. And the deterioration of the character was heartbreaking to watch. Actor Kevin Lin’s movements became more and more jerky and his face more and more discolored as Franz’s world crumbled. I was wholly convinced that he had been driven mad.

The original play was famously left unfinished due to its writer’s young death, and I almost wish this rendition of the performance had been left unfinished too, as the ending is nearly too much to bear. No sense is regained and fragmentation gives way to things (i.e. lives) being cut short. I left the performance feeling that I had witnessed something absurd, but I’m also convinced that is exactly what Büchner and Schiffler intended.

The Daily play review: Woyzeck

By Joseph Park The Daily

People often fear the unknown and inhibit their imagination not because they are afraid they might act on certain thoughts, but because the fear of being judged by society is immediate to them.

That is Franz Woyzeck’s greatest concern, a nervous and destitute soldier (Kevin Lin) in rural Germany, trying to provide for his family.

From the beginning of the play, his behavior implies schizophrenia, and the occupants of this small village are not very receptive. Even the town’s doctor (Parker Kennedy) advises him to only eat peas as an experiment of his illness and not for medical treatment.

The voices inside of him grow louder, deteriorating his cognitive abilities.

Meanwhile, Marie (Esther Hafner), the mother of Woyzeck’s child, begins to fancy a handsome drum major (Jack McBride).

Despite receiving constant verbal abuse like having “no virtue,” as claimed by the captain (Ahmed Al Awadhi), Woyzeck continues to perform the only job he knows, which is to sharpen a razor and shave the captain’s face.

There is an intriguing and nerve-wracking tension on the set as Woyzeck presses the razor against the captain’s bare neck. One cannot help but question what Woyzeck is thinking as his eyes tremble unpredictably. How has he taken this insult?

In one ambiguous scene, Marie and the drum major are seen together flirting. What did they do before appearing? What will they do after?

When Woyzeck detects Marie and the drum major dancing together intimately at a town gathering, he suspects them of adultery. Worse, the drum major announces the affair in front of Woyzeck by flaunting the handkerchief given by Marie. Fighting and public humiliation ensue.

The injured — no, the completely broken — Woyzeck can no longer struggle against the voices inside his head. The whispers he hears grow stronger and clearer. They chant, “Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her,” and Woyzeck, powerless to resist, chimes along.

The Undergraduate Theater Society has put together an unsettling yet very thought-provoking production that forces viewers to question their preconceptions of normality. What is socially acceptable? Who or what makes a pariah?

“Woyzeck” is an unfinished script conceived by German dramatist Georg Büchner. Büchner’s communitarian beliefs bleed through the performance as society pushes Woyzeck further and further away to the point that he has become a slave no different than a circus monkey, obeying command after command.

“Woyzeck” is a classic German play taught in many schools, including the School of Drama at the University of Washington. It has never been staged before at the UW, until now.

Vulnerability, the manipulation of vulnerability, and suppression of expression are key themes of “Woyzeck.”

Throughout the plot, one is forced to critically analyze the abandonment of Woyzeck. In a time of need, in a time of crisis, no one empathized; Woyzeck was simply deemed the crazy animal without morals — a bleak oasis amidst apathetic private citizens.

The hour and a half show went by in a breeze. Kevin Lin’s portrayal of the disturbed Woyzeck was spot-on and seamless. From his awkwardly fitted trousers and tight suspenders to his agitated screams, Lin made it easy to observe an insane man. However, the makeup made Woyzeck look like a jittery raccoon, which was an unexpectedly cute phenomenon.

Esther Hafner was positively gorgeous in a Victorian skirt and blouse. She was motherly at one moment but smoldering the next, especially when she was acting with the absurdly handsome Jack McBride (his military uniform could use a little less shoulder pads and a better tailor). Both actors demonstrated a kind of excellence that made the rising action of “Woyzeck” very compelling.

Intentional or unintentional, Beverly Poole’s role as the grandmother served as comic relief for this fragmented play. The intensity of Woyzeck’s recklessness can become tedious at certain times, but Poole’s successful depiction of a terrified elderly woman with a silver Bob Marley hair weave adds both humor and color to the act.

The captain and the doctor were memorably despicable characters, both of them deserving a slap across the face.

Ahmed Al Awadhi had a fantastically booming voice that commanded respect worthy of a captain. What came out of the Captain’s mouth, however, was beyond annoying; it is a wonder how Woyzeck managed not to slit the Captain’s throat when he had the chance to do so.

No one can understand the Doctor’s predilection for peas, but Parker Kennedy convinces the audience that peas are an integral part of his scientific career. Without the peas, he is nothing. With them, he is a genius.

“Woyzeck” showcases a plethora of political and social commentary that will linger with the audience even after the curtain call and ignite discussions that reflect on the idea that everyone is affected by one another’s deeds, whether they be kind or malicious.

“Woyzeck” opens today at 7:30 p.m. in Hutchinson Hall, room 101. Purchase tickets on

The verdict: The UTS has successfully portrayed the life of a derelict driven to madness.

Reach contributing writer Joseph Park at Twitter: @seattlezephyr

The Daily play review: Love Song

By Danielle Palmer-Friedman The Daily

When you hate the world, the world hates you right back. People walk by you, and their happiness seems purposeless, a deception, something just out of grasp.

A single light illuminates your life, but that light is too bright, and you keep it turned off; you keep yourself in the dark.

This is the life of Beane.

Beane (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) is a young man who is undiagnosed. His state of mind becomes less and less clear as John Kolvenbach’s hour and 40 minute play goes on. At first, he seems to be autistic, unable to handle human interaction or process emotion. It becomes clear that Beane is being crushed by loneliness. He is trying his hardest not to exist.

Whatever it is that he’s suffering from, he’s not the only one living miserably because of it.

Beane’s sister Joan (Kellyn Traenkenschuh) and her husband (Jack Dearth) act as support for Beane. Joan is a corporate ladder climber with little sympathy and a big taste for wine. She has spent her life protecting her brother and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. But the audience quickly learns that the strain being placed upon the couple is suffocating them.

Fortunately, Beane is about to experience something that will change his life forever: love.

“Love Song,” unlike its namesake, is the opposite of cliche. In fact, it explores many difficult themes which are complex and, like reality, messy and awkward. Kolvenbach’s script, while at times a bit too avant-garde to follow, is strong in its wording. The play is littered with emotional stingers — quotes worthy of walls — which completely sum up the paleness of life. The language Kolvenbach uses is truly poetic in its nature: Imagine a mix of Tennessee Williams and Stephen Chbosky.

With such a heavy script to work with, the Undergraduate Theater Society (UTS) did a commendable job. Chessin-Yudin specifically steals the show from the opening scene. His ability to work the facial expressions and mimic the vocal patterns of someone with emotional and social problems is outstanding. The audience feels for Beane and hopes for his emotional elevation throughout the play.

Unfortunately, the character of Beane is extremely turbulent and therefore difficult for any actor to play. Halfway through the play, Chessin-Yudin must abandon the mannerisms which he has managed to replicate so well. His character changes his outlook on life, and the transition is somewhat rough.

Meanwhile, both Traenkenschuh and Dearth exhibit lackluster performances at the beginning of the play. Their characters seem undeveloped and without depth. The play only features four main characters, and therefore the pressure put on each one is increased. Traenkenschuh’s performance seems shallow until the end of the play when she recovers her character and strengths as an actress in one of the final scenes. Similarly, while Dearth begins the play with wet words that fall flat onto the floor without any power, he ends with a much stronger panache. Dearth and Traenkenschuh both seem to find their characters by the end of the play and finally deliver crisp and effective lines. The effort on both their parts is apparent and appreciated but sometimes unbelievable.

Erica Ream, who plays Beane’s love interest Molly, has one of the most challenging roles to play. Ream accepts this challenge with a fierceness. She desperately commits to the sometimes intimidatingly intimate role of Molly. Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Ream’s performance is her usage of her body: She is liberal and fluid — practically dancing on stage — adding a vibrant quality to her character, which is much appreciated.

“Love Song” is an extremely ambitious play for any company to tackle, especially a group of students who have many other responsibilities floating in their minds. When looked at as a unit, UTS’ version of “Love Song” is enjoyable and hard-hitting. The company does a wonderful job portraying the rawness present in Kolvenbach’s script. The actors are unafraid to expose intense emotions on stage, and the effect is both rewarding and deeply felt. Their commitment to their characters is noticeable even throughout the scene changes: As the stage crew switches the set, the characters remain ingrained within the worlds of their characters.

“Love Song” is being performed by UTS in the Cabaret Theater, Hutchinson Hall. The show opened Thursday and runs until next Sunday, Nov. 3. Visit for tickets.

The Verdict: Go support the UTS and their production of “Love Song” for a heartbreaking account of self-discovery.

2012 - 2013 season

The Daily play review: Cyrano

Word play and heartstring plucks abound

By Samantha Leeds The Daily

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are just as many ways, or more, to woo her.

An eloquent wordsmith, formidable swordsman, and man of panache, Cyrano de Bergerac seems to have everything it takes to make any woman swoon.

Except for one fatal flaw: The only thing bigger than the protagonist in the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) production of “Cyrano” is his preposterously large … nose.

Directed by Ben Phillips, the play witnesses Cyrano, a nobleman in the French army, (Spencer Hamp) in his efforts to help the new cadet in town, Christian de Neuvillette (a hapless Josh Langager), woo the woman they’re both in love with.

Cyrano de Bergerac lived in France during the 1600s. The play, which playwright Edmond Rostand based loosely on de Bergerac’s life, debuted in 1897.

The UTS cast had a legacy to uphold. Their adaptation maintains the original script’s historical rhyming couplets, but keeps the play relevant, throwing in more modern jokes. The resulting production is magnificently humorous and tragic.

It adeptly balances outlandish characters, like the haughty Comte de Guiche (Nathan Wornian), with moments of human insecurity, like Cyrano’s disbelief that anyone could love him because of his nose. This juggling act keeps the audience engaged, wondering which zany or profound development waits around the corner.

Roxane (Hannah Ruwe), whose beauty is matched only by her intellect, falls for Christian’s looks and, more importantly, the idea that he is a man of substance. Christian is Cyrano’s foil — handsome, but lacking in intellect. Together, the two men make the perfect team.

Though the entire cast excelled in their roles, the sheer number of actors was often overwhelming. This left the audience unsure where to focus its attention.

The simple functionality of the set counteracted this shortcoming. The balcony and staircase clarified the hierarchy of power among the characters, while the open center stage allowed actors to roam around in scenes with fewer people.

The most engaging scenes featured Cyrano interacting with his close friends Le Bret (Sylvia Kowalski) and Roxane. These moments highlighted character development, and made more hectic scenes seem genuine. They also showcased individuals such as a hilarious Kevin Lin as the heavily-accented French baker and poet, Ragueneau.

The role of the swashbuckling cadet with the impressive schnoz has enough lines to keep a lesser actor merely reciting his character, but Hamp rose to the occasion, and went far beyond in his role as Cyrano.

Everything from his stance to his delivery of self-deprecating one-liners wooed the audience, along with the play’s characters. He created a larger-than-life persona that remained relatable and sympathetic.

One scene in particular, wherein Cyrano uses a form of charades to prompt Christian’s profession of love to Roxane, teems with hilarious miscommunications. It showcases Hamp’s success with both physical humor and internal vulnerability.

It is tempting to give this play a modern twist, as the 1987 film adaptation, “Roxanne,” starring Steve Martin did. Phillips made the right choice in keeping the original setting: Paris circa 1640. Though it was occasionally a struggle to keep up with the word play and Ragueneau’s French accent, it was worth it, if for no other reason than the thrillingly choreographed sword fighting.

Cyrano’s love for Roxane is beautiful in all of its saccharine glory and impressive in its sheer endurance. With unparalleled sincerity, Hamp embodies the air of a man resigned to a life of unrequited love. The true feat, however, was the care every cast member showed for his or her character. There was such sincerity in the room that the audience had a tough time saying goodbye.

“Cyrano” runs through March 10 in Hutchinson Hall.

The verdict: Between laughter and tears “Cyrano” retells an age-old story to great effect.

Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds

The Daily play review: Burn This

January 23, 2013 at 9:09 PM | Samantha Leeds

“He was a punk, she did ballet. What more can I say?” Yes, Avril Lavigne hit the love-story stereotype on the nose with “Sk8er Boi.” But the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) play about a dancer falling for an angry, substance-abusing man actually does have more to say.

“Burn This,” UTS’s latest production, directed by Mary Hubert, portrays the lives of dancer-choreographer Anna (a vividly emotional Shannon Campbell) and her friend Larry (Parker Kennedy) as they grieve the deaths of their third flatmate, Robbie, and his boyfriend, Dom, in a boating accident.

Anna has always lived a safe life in her Manhattan flat, dating Burton (Dalton Broback), her well-meaning but uninspiring boyfriend, and dancing in other people’s productions instead of choreographing her own. Then Robbie’s brother Pale (a luminously intense Christopher Dingle) crashes through her door at 5 a.m., engulfing her safe world in a passion that ignites everything around her.

Love emerging from despair may sound similar to the cliche lyrics of “Sk8r Boi,” but playwright Lanford Wilson’s fast-paced, emotionally-complex dialogue and the brilliant performances on the part of Campbell and Dingle keep the production from feeling old hat.

Anna’s struggle to find her own movements on the dance floor — she says she even walks in the style of Charlie, her previous choreographer — mirrors her inability to take responsibility for her relationships and career.

Though Campbell’s acting is accomplished, the choreography itself fails to show a metamorphosis from Charlie’s style of dancing into something unique to Anna. Her joy, sorrow and inspiration are visible as she creates her own pieces and falls for Pale, but any changes in the steps themselves are almost imperceptible. The audience must accept Larry’s declarations of Anna’s talent as proof.

Where the choreography flounders, Campbell and Dingle’s interactions as Anna and Pale excel. Anna is comfortable with her rich, screenwriter boyfriend and maybe “if he asked one more time,” she’d finally agree to marry him. Angry, wounded, and sensitive, Pale yanks Anna out of her comfort zone and into a place so raw it scares her.

The two leads adeptly navigate the spaces between drunken monologues about the perils of parking in the city and quietly vulnerable moments of physicality alike. Interactions between Anna and Burton, and conversations with Larry are believable and often humorous, but fall short in comparison to the vast array of layered emotions Campbell and Dingle bring to their scenes.

The set is neat and purposely spartan, both as a rehearsal space within the story’s context and a stage in Hutchinson Hall; it is rich in symbolism and provides more space to dance. As Anna’s relationship and the play progress, the space becomes more cluttered, filled with baggage physical and otherwise.

Though the sparse set serves a purpose, the pauses between some scenes — supposedly meant to show the passing of time — were often long enough that the audience was left hoping for a slightly more interesting backdrop.

Throughout the production, the musical accompaniment varies, but myriad covers of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” dominate the soundtrack. Though the music does overemphasize what should be implied symbolism, the covers vary enough to hold their individual value. When coupled with the play’s title, the soundtrack highlights Anna and Pale’s precarious tightrope walk between being on fire and burning alive.

“Burn This” runs through Feb. 3 at the Cabaret Theater in Hutchinson Hall.

The verdict: Amid flying sparks, “Burn This” artfully dodges cliches and gives an explosive performance.

Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds

The Daily play review: Pippin

November 28, 2012 at 9:09 PM | Samantha Leeds

Admit it. At least once, you’ve imagined your life as a musical. Exploring a young boy’s show-tune accompanied search for meaning, the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) latest production, “Pippin,” hits just the right notes, allowing the audience to live out their musical fantasies.

First shown on Broadway in 1972, the play tells the story of a young prince, Pippin, (played by an actor UTS wishes to remain a surprise) on his search for his one true calling in life. Starting off in the Roman Empire and then rambling across time, he is followed by a musical troupe whose leading player (Ian Lerch) narrates the tale and promises magic and miracles to the audience.

Yes, the exploration of free love and the satirical take on the glory of battle — most likely inspired by Vietnam given the play’s 1970s origins — seem more outdated than insightful, but this is merely the music and lyrics, written by Stephen Schwartz, that UTS had to work with.

Lerch, as the Leading Player, seamlessly embodies a whimsical, but sinister pied-piper persona with the dancing chops to make Bob Fosse — the Broadway version’s director and Tony award-winning choreographer — proud. Pippin’s singing voice is clear, beautiful, and tinged with the innocence necessary to make his part believable.

His travels are accompanied by a live band situated at the back of the stage, which greatly enhances the musical numbers without distracting from the action at center stage.

Though the story of a boy trying to find his way in the world has been told countless times, “Pippin” manages to change up the scenery by continuously breaking the fourth wall. The Leading Player selects Pippin from the audience at the start of the play, hence UTS’s desire to keep the actor a secret, and hands him a script.

As the story continues, Pippin stops reading from his lines and earnestly throws himself into just about everything that comes his way — whether it be ruling over the Holy Roman Empire or partaking in a cast-wide orgy — before deciding it’s just not for him. With equal fervor, the Leading Player seems hell-bent on making sure the boy’s life stays by the book, reprimanding characters for deviating from the printed word.

These moments give an otherwise cheesy plot line metaphorical resonance. Pippin, despite being a prince, is the everyman. Any of the audience members could be in his shoes. They understand — and have even lived — his struggle to fit the part he has been handed. They know the difficulty of reading the right lines.

What’s more, Pippin’s search for a role in life that will be extraordinary and fill his life with magic is a poignant theme to explore in a university setting.

Additional individual performances make the play even more enjoyable. Hannah Knapp-Jenkins is delightfully funny as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, and Emma Broback is wonderfully conniving as Pippin’s stepmother Fastrada, who sarcastically describes herself as “just your everyday house wife.”

When all hope for finding his calling appears to be lost, Pippin is taken in by Catherine, a widow with a foot fetish (a fantastic Rachel Guffey), who shows him that maybe all he needs is to be the head at someone’s table.

Though he must give up the musical troupe, makeup, lighting, costume, and band to be with Catherine — by now the fourth wall is rubble at the audiences’ feet — he is able to see what is truly important.

“Pippin” explores what is left in one’s life when the glitter, bright lights, and delusions of grandeur are subtracted from the mix. It dares to conjecture that, at the end of the day, satisfaction must be a choice.

“Pippin” opens today at the Cabaret Theatre in Hutchinson Hall.

The verdict: UTS's take on Broadway's long-running show is enteraining and meaningful

Reach reporter Samantha Leeds at Twitter: @SamanthaJLeeds

The Daily play review: Five Flights

October 27, 2012 at 7:37 PM | Andrew Rodgers

When you go to a play, you go for the production, the acting, the story, the themes, or some combination of these. If you see plays for the production, go see the Undergraduate Theater Society’s (UTS) performance of ‘Five Flights,’ written by Canadian playwright Adam Bock. If you see plays primarily for the plot, don’t bother.

The story is narrated by a young man named Ed (Andrew Pritzkau) whose family owns a large, beautiful aviary. In the intro scenes, he talks with his sister Adele (Erica Ream) about her friend’s new religion. The actors clearly demonstrated that their characters cared about one another, but the dialogue the script provided them didn’t reveal much else about the characters.

After that, we met the quirky religious founder, Olivia (Kylee Gano). She describes her conversion when she was surrounded by birds and thought she heard the voice of God. She calls her religion “The Church of the Fifth Day,” and it is based around the idea that birds are our guides here on earth. Gano’s portrayal was energetic and zany, with her character constantly moving and chattering about birds.

Olivia wants to use the aviary as a church. This creates a conflict with Ed and Adele’s sister-in-law, Jane, who wants to tear down the aviary, with Ed in the middle trying to mediate over the course of the play. While the idea of this church might have allowed for original commentary on religion, it instead portrayed religion as something ridiculous and strange, building toward a hackneyed and predictable scene where the two argue about religion.

Meanwhile, Ed is courted by a gay professional hockey player named Tom (Joshua Chessin-Yudin). Chessin-Yudin portrayed Tom with a level of intermingled determinedness and nervousness that was nothing short of hilarious — it was the highlight of the play. Through this relationship, Ed tries to deal with grief over past lost love, but then this subplot went through an extremely predictable and boring cycle.

The first scene of Ed and Tom together displayed the minimalist set design well, though. Rather than fancy backdrops or artistic landscapes and props, the crew used human beings miming things to illustrate the environment. Occasionally, these people would step out of their roles as props and physically interact with characters. Overall, this live-action set design was well done.

Despite acting that portrayed emotion believably and creative set design, the end of the play illustrates why people more interested in a good story shouldn’t go. The play reaches its penultimate chronological moment by the intermission, seeming like a conclusion. Ed then narrates that we should go back and see a few more events, which comprises the second act. This entire second act didn’t add much to the themes or show the characters in a new light.

Also, the circular chronology broke suspense. We knew the ending, and the reasons that things happened weren’t complicated or changed much by the later half. While the first act had some interesting moments toward its beginning, the second completely failed, leaving me wondering why it was there at all.

The verdict: The acting and designing are great, but UTS chose a poor story to perform.

Reach reporter Andrew Rodgers at Twitter: @AndrewRodgersau

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