Category Archives: Theatre

A Streetcar Named Striptease Rides Through ‘The Tennessee Tease’

Tennessee Tease...

There’s no denying how hot it’s been around these parts all summer long. Overcast days and random spits of rain have done little to stave off the beads of perspiration popping from the brows of even the most composed Seattleites. And there have been days where the humidity’s been, well, pretty oppressive by our temperate standards.

It’s a condition that’s pretty novel for Northwesterners, but it’s a state of physical and emotional being that feeds, and feeds off of, the works of Tennessee Williams. If the collective oeuvre of twentieth century American theater’s most iconic playwright possessed a physical body, its garments would be clinging to it in a hothouse-summer-induced sweat.

That environment would seem a fertile clime for the bump and grind of burlesque performance, and the folks putting on Tennessee Tease (opening at the Theatre Off Jackson tonight) know it.

Co-produced by Sailor St. Claire (a key mover at Sinner Saint Burlesque company) and writer/choreographer/burlesque performer Fosse Jack, Tennessee Tease promises a genuine narrative in which Williams’ memoirs are wedded with burlesque enactments depicting his indelible fictional characters, his real-life friends and loved ones, and his lovers. Sinner Saint’s presentation from last year, Inheritance: Maiden, Mother, Crone, impressed our own Chris Burlingame greatly, and like that work Tennessee Tease is aiming for something more ambitious than your typical burlesque revue. And there’s no denying that the tensions and passions threaded throughout Williams’ writing and private life will provide ample fodder.

Several established local burlesque performers and actors will join St. Claire and Jack onstage, including drag king Al LykyaDiva le Deviant, Jesse Bell-Jones, and legendary Seattle-based ecdysiast Eartha Quake. The jury’s still out, however, as to whether or not TOJ will be providing bourbon, mint juleps, silk kerchiefs for mopping sweaty brows, and/or handheld fans.

Tennessee Tease plays at TOJ August 13 through 15 at 8:00 p.m (doors at 7:30). Tickets, $20, can be purchased here.

Seattle Opera’s Full-Throated ‘Nabucco’ Powers Past its Awkward Staging

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Verdi’s Nabucco opened last Saturday night at McCaw Hall, with the run continuing through August 22; it will be broadcast live next Saturday evening, August 15, on KING-FM. A smash hit when it was first presented in 1842, it still has that power, which one experiences most strongly in the music in Seattle Opera’s production. The singing is magnificent from everybody, chorus included.

The opera, Verdi’s first major success at age 29, is dominated by the role of Abigaille, which has in the past been considered a voice killer. It has to be sung with ferocious and acrobatic intensity most of the time, but includes a few tender moments as well. Seattle Opera’s former general director Speight Jenkins heard Mary Elizabeth Williams sing it and determined to bring her here to repeat the role. She has performed it all over Europe and it’s good to report that it has not destroyed her voice. Soprano Williams was a Young Artist here in 2000-01 and has gone from strength to strength. She was superb and terrifying as Abigaille, despite a tendency to be a hair under the note on her top Cs. Her acting was splendid and menacing, and in her gentler moments she sounded exquisite.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, making his debut here as Zaccaria, sang with deep well-cored, authoritative richness, a foil to Nabucco, sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins. To begin with Hawkins sounded a little as though he was losing his core, but the voice tightened up and he gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear.

The story, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is a highly imaginative, emotionally extreme version of the biblical story of Jerusalem’s sack by Nebuchadnezzar, and the subsequent exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, as he is called here) takes both his daughters to war with him. One, gentle Fenena, is captured by the Hebrews, only to be freed by her Hebrew lover, Ismaele, negating her hostage value. The other, Abigaille, is consumed by ambition, frustration (she wants Ismaele), and rage against anything in her way, including her father. In Babylon, Nabucco pronounces himself a god and demands worship. The Hebrew god smites him with lightning (a startling lighting moment), he goes mad and weak, and Abigaille seizes the moment to grab the crown, ordering the death of all the Hebrews, including Fenena who has embraced the Hebrew god. They are all about to be slaughtered when Nabucco renounces Baal, embraces the Hebrew god, regains his strength, and cancels the slaughter. Abigaille takes poison and dies in remorse.

In an unusual format, the orchestra spans the middle of the McCaw Hall stage, with the proscenium pushed out over the pit, no doubt with the intention of bringing the major protagonists closer to the audience, thus making the experience more intimate. This extra 20 feet or so may have worked for those in the front half of the orchestra stalls, but didn’t make much difference for those further back, and the division of the stage and visibility of the orchestra made for awkward moments and stilted staging. It didn’t, however, affect vocal or orchestral sound.

In all but one chorus, the Hebrews and Babylonian soldiers stay in the back part of the stage, behind the orchestra. There are only two ways for them to move, left and right, so when the soldiers attack and one would expect the Hebrews to scatter every which way, they can’t. When the Hebrew high priest, Zaccaria, exhorts and comforts them, he is facing the audience from the front of the stage and his flock is behind him. There are several moments like this which don’t feel natural in this staging by François Racine.

Perhaps because of the narrowed front stage, movement around tended to be more static than we usually see here, even when the chorus came on in front to sing the famous “Va pensiero.” Trained by John Keene, it outdid itself and received prolonged applause. However it was jolting to see conductor Carlo Montanero applauding them also from his podium. Montanero paced the performance deftly, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the singers, surely not an easy job with the unusual positioning.

The backdrop sets of Jerusalem and Babylon are abstract, changing video projections by principal designer Robert Bonniol. One vaguely suggests the temple and its destruction, but with a dead horse head and neck in the middle, which seemed mystifying until a couple of acts later when Nabucco mentions his horse. The most concrete are the famous hanging gardens of Babylon presented as plants in huge bubbles which descend from the flies. Mostly they are somewhat puzzling. Props are minimal, just one stool in one act, one large modern chair with side table in another.

With sumptuous blue and gold for the Babylonians, and simple red and brown for the Hebrews, Ginette Grenier’s costumes made welcome splashes of color.

A Very Model of a ‘Pirates of Penzance’ from Seattle’s G & S Society

Seattle is fortunate to have one of the best Gilbert & Sullivan troupes around—and has had for the past 61 years. This year’s production of that perennial favorite, The Pirates of Penzance, opened Friday at the Bagley Wright Theatre for eleven performances (weekends through July 25th: tickets here). Although this is the ninth time the company has presented it (first in 1956), each production has new ideas and clever, imaginative touches while never adulterating the tried-and-true base of the original work.

This time it is as fresh as if they had never performed it before, and also shows a changing of the guard. There are new faces everywhere in this production. There is a noticeably younger generation on stage in roles both principal and chorus. Mike Storie has stepped down from producer (for the past 18 years) in favor of Kim Douglass (who worked with him, and whose title is now producing artistic director), Christopher Nardine has succeeded Christine Goff this year as stage director, and many of the singers are new to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. This is all as it should be and it is a pleasure to report that the true G & S spirit is unchanged and the production as lively, charming and fun as always, much as devotees may miss performers they’ve expected to see forever.

One unchanged old-timer, Dave Ross as the Major-General, has lost none of his inimitable ability to sing pattersong at warp speed while making most of it audible to the audience. His daughters, all 12 of them, are young, pretty, vivacious and good actors and singers, while the heroine, Shelly Traverse making her Society debut as Mabel, is as pert, cute, and feisty as she is intended to be and an excellent actress as well. To have one of her sisters be a bookworm is a delightful touch.

The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. (Photo:  Patrick André)
The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. (Photo: Patrick André)

Derek Sellers as her swain Frederic is the right age and has the requisite agility as well as voice—this is an energetic production and all the males need to be able to leap up, over or around while singing. Many of the pirates are old-timers but have retained their energy while Pirate King Brian Pucheu, another Society newcomer, leaps highest of all and wields a mean sword he doesn’t hesitate to draw.

One of the delights is Erin Wise as the rough-and-ready nursemaid Ruth. For this, Wise cultivates a voice which could cut through metal and a dialect accent to match. Last but not least of the principals, Police Sergeant Michael Drumheller, also a debut here, leads the bumbling constables as they caper through ruins and get thoroughly beaten by the pirates in a thrilling fight choreographed by Ken Michels. And all of them—pirates, police, girls, principals—can act as well as they sing and they all do, all the time. Nardine has done a stellar job of stage direction.

New sets are by Nathan Rodda, colorful costumes by Candace Frank and the whole is tied together by music director Bernard Kwiram with his orchestra of 28, well-paced and supportive of the singers.

Inheritance: Sinner Saint Burlesque’s Empathy Exam

inheritance

Inheritance: Maiden, Mother, Crone is an ambitious theater piece from the ladies at Sinner Saint Burlesque. It completed its two-week run at Theatre Off Jackson on Sunday night to a crowd filling up about three-fourths of the small theater.

As its mission statement says it wants “to become the next Vagina Monologues” and that it “blends burlesque, modern dance, narrative and feminist performance art with activism, intergenerational dialogue, beloved community, and sensory spectacle to explore both ancient and modern stories about what it means to embrace, celebrate and integrate the feminine.” Like I said, it’s an ambitious work.

It’s also difficult to classify, by design. It doesn’t work as a straight-forward theater production and the teasing and sexiness of burlesque is only a small part of the production. While classification is not the easiest thing, I’ll try anyway.

The production ran for a little over two hours and had 22 different pieces performed and choreographed by seven members of SSB. Some involved new age mysticism and others were more contemporary and included pieces set to pop music. I appreciated that it found cohesion in the disparate pieces because it was a part of a story about womanhood that SSB wanted to tell.

The pieces I enjoyed the most included “Pageant,” Lady Tatas’ burlesque routine as a child beauty pageant contestant set to Britney Spears’ “Circus” and “Sex Education,” the act that interrupted a vintage, patriarchal lecture about how women should behave with a more liberating routine, choreographed by Nikola Tease-La. At least that’s my recollection as taking notes was all but impossible in the dark theater.

The solo pieces, particularly Sailor St. Claire’s “Fur Coat” and Evelyn Sin Claire’s “Invisible Women” had personal meanings that were expressed beautifully. More importantly, they found a unique way, though theater and burlesque, to tell those stories.

(At this point, I’ll say that I’m glad that I did the extra reading and viewing to prepare for seeing Inheritance. That included reading Dona Dei Cuori’s book Burlesque and Bequest and watching YouTube videos by Sailor St. Claire, Evelyn Sin Claire, and Jesse Belle-Jones explaining their pieces.)

Not every piece gelled together completely, and I found some of the set changes frustrating (like having a 3 ½ minute piece followed by 90 seconds of darkness to move some chairs around). But with so many disparate and different pieces, that feels like nitpicking. There are bound to be a few pieces everyone will enjoy, or, even better, empathize with.

TSB interview: Jinkx Monsoon talks to us about The Vaudevillians, The Inevitable Album, and what’s next

vaudevillians

As a Seattleite, I’ve found it all but impossible to avoid the force of nature we know as Jinkx Monsoon. But who else, besides the most repressed, would want to?

Jinkx Monsoon is the drag personae of Portland-born, Seattleite Jerick Hoffer. I first encountered Hoffer as the star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in early 2013. What you realize is that Hoffer is a natural born performer who looks at home on a stage, and is the rare triple threat: one who can act, dance, and sing. Since then, Jinkx Monsoon has taken on a life (of fame) on its own, winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in season five and becoming an off-Broadway sensation in New York, plus a music star with the release of The Inevitable Album last spring. To keep track, Hoffer told the Stranger in his Genius Awards profile,Jerick plays Jinkx, and then Jinkx plays those other characters.”

Starting this weekend, Jinkx Monsoon stars in The Vaudevillians, the off-Broadway hit that no less than the New York Times said, “Straight or gay, everyone leaves this show with sides aching from laughter.”  It plays for about a month at the Seattle Rep. It’s a collaboration with Major Scales (known as Richard Andreissen formally) where they play two vaudeville performers from the 1920s that discover their songs have been covered by almost a century of pop stars who failed to give them credit. I even laughed at typing the plot, as straight-laced as I could.

I had a phone interview earlier this week to talk with Jinkx Monsoon about The Vaudevillians, The Inevitable Album, and what’s coming next.

Your new show The Vaudevillians debuts in Seattle this week at the Rep. What will that show entail for people seeing it?

The Vaudevillians is the love child between me and my music partner, Major Scales. It’s a story of two vaudeville stars that have been frozen alive since the 1920s. They have recently been thawed out, thanks to global warming. They found out that pop stars of the last century have been covering their music without giving them any credit and ripping off all of their songs that used to be big hits in the twenties. The pop stars have been passing their music off as their own. Our characters come back to the stage to show the original context and the original meaning and the original style of all of these iconic pop songs, like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” or music by Madonna, or “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin. We span the map on musical references. But it’s also through these coke-addicted vaudeville stars of the 1920s.

How did the idea come about?

It started as a joke between me and my music partner. We would come home from rehearsal all tired and bleary-eyed. We started joking around about these two characters who were the oldest people alive. Through playing around and improv-ing with these characters, we morphed them and the story shifted to what the show is today. My music partner and I used to be part of an improv troupe so the whole show came out of me and him playing around with each other, testing out music with different song styles and just making each other laugh.

You also have an album, The Inevitable Album, out. Can you talk a little about that?

The album is with my same music partner who I do The Vaudevillians with. It’s a collaborative piece between the two of us, but it features original music and covers and it came out last May. It’s been out since the spring of 2014. It’s kind of an homage album to the torch singers who I used to listen to growing up, like Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline and Marlene Dietrich and Bette Midler. Those were the biggest inspirations for the album. It has a lot of jazzy, feely music, but a couple of big, brassy Broadway showtunes, and a couple tongue-in-cheek, funny songs. I think it’s a very good representation of my personality and my music style.

The video for “The Bacon Shake” just came out, and you work with Fred Schneider of the B-52s, one of my very, very favorite bands. Can I ask about how that partnership came to be?

Both Major and I have been huge fans of the B-52s since we were kids. It’s one of the things we bonded over. When we were doing our show in New York, The Vaudevillians, and our producer said he knew Fred Schneider because he heard us talking about how much we love the B-52s. He invited Fred to one of our shows, and Fred immediately took a shine to us and asked if he could start writing us some songs, and if we had any interest in using his songs. It didn’t work in the context of The Vaudevillians but we brought it up to him that we were producing an album. He started collaborating with us for a couple of pieces on the album. He also did the forward on the entire album, which made me very, very happy. It’s surreal for me that one of my childhood musical heroes is now a featured part on my album. It’s lovely working with Fred and we’ve become really good friends with him. We have plans to collaborate in the future with him, as well.

I’ve seen you perform before and heard the album, and thought you were a natural performer. Did you always know you’d be a triple threat?

I always knew that I wanted in career in performing. Specifically acting and singing. I didn’t know that I was going to get in to dance, as well. I don’t consider myself much of a dancer but I can hold my own on the stage. When I was a kid, it’s in my baby book, when I was able to speak, I was asked what I wanted to be and I said “an actor and a dolphin.” At least I accomplished one of the things I set out to do.

I’ll ask one more question because I know you’re very busy getting The Vaudevillians ready to premiere on Friday night at the Rep. But what are you working on next?

Immediately after The Vaudevillians, Major and I are working on a holiday show. That’s in New York and then a short trip through Europe. We’re also working on the sequel to The Vaudevillians. It’s a sequel show to the original story. It’s the same characters but in a new scenario. We’re going to be debuting that in the spring. We’re also going to travel to Provincetown next summer to do a cabaret version of our album. We’ve already booked everything up until this time next year. But we’re doing a lot of work with The Vaudevillians and we’re starting to think about producing a second album and we’re touring anywhere we can with our current album.

I always say “better busy than dead.” {laughs}

At ACT, “The Invisible Hand” delivers

{Photo by Tim Durkan.}
{Photo by Tim Durkan.}

Let’s not mince words and please forgive the hyperbole; there’s not much time for that. Between tonight and its closing on Sunday, there are eight performances of “The Invisible Hand” at ACT Theatre. I would strongly implore everyone reading to do what they can to make it to at least one of those performances. It is one of the most potent and provoking, and timely, theatre productions I’ve ever seen.

It’s not a coincidence that opening night was on September 11. Ayad Akhtar’s play centers around Nick Bright (Connor Toms), an American financial genius who is kidnapped and held hostage in Pakistan by a militant Islamic group. He works for Citibank, but they can’t work for his release because US law forbids “negotiating with terrorists,” so Nick’s $10M ransom gets ignored by the outside world. While in captivity, he doles out some financial advice here and there, to positive results. He tells one Pakistani soldier, Dar, to buy potato futures and sell them at a higher price, then convert his profits from rupees to the more stable American dollar. Nick is able to convince the Imam that he’s worth more alive than dead and that he can raise his ransom through the markets. A brute captor, Bashir (Elijah Alexander deserves lots of credit for this performance) is assigned to watch over Nick and execute is transactions. Nick is not to use a computer while in captivity.

What Ayad Akhtar does so well with this play is establish early on what the stakes are, or what we think they are. And the stakes are very high, but get higher.

The parallel educations that Nick and Bashir make up the nucleus of the play. Bashir learns from Nick how the global financial markets operate, and he goes from being unsure of how short-selling and call and put options work to finding Nick’s senior thesis from Princeton for light reading. Nick must come to grips with the real-world implications of global finance on the lives of the people affected. Nick is an idealist who believes that markets are too large for manipulation and in the benevolence of the United States, and he sees numbers on a spreadsheet as something he can exploit for financial gain. Saying that the rupee is one crisis away from insolvency is one thing, but what will a worthless currency mean for the Pakistani people who cannot just go to the bank and convert their rupees into dollars ahead of the next global event?

The play felt particularly timely when Nick was asked to name the recently-murdered journalist and there’s an awkward pause before he gives Daniel Pearl’s name. I wasn’t the only one waiting (for what felt like at least a minute but was more likely less than five seconds) for Nick to say Steven Sotloff or James Foley, two journalists killed by ISIS this summer.

“The Invisible Hand” doesn’t so much as prompt discussion about timely events, it forces a reevaluation of entire belief systems and ideologies. When I saw it on Sunday evening, my literally last-minute ticket put me in the front row next to two older theater patrons. Their seats were vacant after intermission. I couldn’t help but wonder what prompted them to abandon the show. I’m only projecting, of course, but I wonder if the impulse is similar to the one that removes books like The Working Poor: Invisible in America from classrooms. Maybe they were tired or ill, but boredom seems like an impossibility (and the second half was were the stakes and tension reached a boiling point). “The Invisible Hand” doesn’t pander to your existing beliefs, but forces one to

I honestly don’t know what more art can provide to the people who choose to view it.

{“The Invisible Hand” plays at ACT Theatre through Sunday, September 28. See it now.}