Category Archives: Theatre

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.}

Opera on Tap’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” makes operatic fun for drinkers

SpeedDating

My introduction to the art form it may be, I feel reasonably confidant asserting that the production of “Speed Dating Tonight!” I saw at the Northwest Film Forum last night is the first opera to ever be staged where two characters wear t-shirts that say “Fuck it, let’s drink.”

“Speed Dating Tonight!” is an opera written by Michael Ching, the first production in a series called “New Brew,” which focuses on new works. It was staged by the Seattle chapter of Opera on Tap, a group dedicated to making opera more accessible by holding productions in bars instead of theaters. It is also part of the Seattle Fringe Festival, which means all performances run an hour or less and cost $10 for tickets (which goes directly to the artists). They occasionally appear at the Blue Moon Tavern, Seattle’s most legendary dive bar. Not only does On Tap Opera remove all of the fussiness from opera, but they also aren’t beholden to the historical racist stereotypes that others have written about (as far as I know: all of the performers in “Speed Dating Tonight!” are Caucasian and played Caucasian characters, though one woman does play a male speed dater).

To a philistine like myself, it was lots and lots of fun.

The stage is setup to look like a bar. The cast is made up of actors playing a bartender (managing divo Robert McPherson, who also said he was the director in the introduction), a waitress (managing diva Ksenia Popova), the speed dating coordinator, and a handful of people on speed dates. All of the dialogue is sung, with few exceptions. In the short play (which lasted about 45-50 minutes), each actor had the chance to showcase their chops as singers, with universally impressive results. I also appreciated the different POVs on display, and the music let each performer express why they’re at a speed dating event.

The only thing I found wanting was that for something called Opera on Tap, there was a lack of beer. The Northwest Film Forum sells it, but it must stay in the lobby and cannot be brought into the theater. It’s not Opera on Tap Seattle’s fault, of course, but it means that next time I’ll have to see opera as God intended and like a civilized adult: in a bar.

I can’t wait.

{Opera on Tap Seattle’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” has performances on September 18, 20, and 21 at Northwest Film Forum. Tickets and more info can be found here.}

TSB interview: Fussy Cloud Puppet Slam talks about Bumbershoot, what “adult puppetry” means, and a lot more

puppetslam

Fussy Cloud Puppet Slam has been a fixture in Seattle’s growing puppetry scene. It has been a success since 2011, bringing together Puget Sounders interested in the art of puppetry. This coming weekend, they are putting on a show at Bumbershoot, described by Bumbershoot as “a cabaret-style puppet show for grown-ups. Each short piece  — whether hilarious, heartbreaking or horrifying — is created and performed by puppeteers from the Pacific Northwest (and beyond!) From the brand spanking new to the tried-and-true, every act is guaranteed to have one important thing in common: puppets.”

To learn more about Fussy Cloud Puppet Slam, I met up with producers and puppeteers Jenelle Weidlich and Rachel Jackson.

How did you both become involved in puppetry?

Rachel: I work with Annex Theatre a lot. The way they work on the inside is that if you’re willing to step up and try to do something, they’re willing to let you, even if you have no experience. About six years ago, they needed a puppet builder for a play. I was between projects, so I jumped in on it. The puppet designer had to drop out of the project due to health reasons, so I ended up designing and building the puppets. The time just kind of flew by and I really loved it. During the intermission of that show, another friend came up to me and said, “Hey! I’m doing an improvised labyrinth and would really like there to be a lot of puppets in it. You make puppets now, do you want to be in my show and make puppets for it?” I said yes. I don’t think I’ve been without a project since then.

Jenelle: About six years ago, I had an opportunity to work on a Brian Kooser show. He’s a local puppeteer. I worked on a few of his shows and then did a few slam pieces. That’s how I got started.

Rachel: We were getting into it about the same time. That’s funny!

When you both got involved, did you find that there was already a scene in Seattle, or did you have to build it up from the ground floor?

Jenelle: When I started, it felt like the puppet renaissance that happened earlier was over and a lot of really talented puppeteers and builders had moved away. There were a few left but there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the community. But as of late, with the Puppet Slam Network, a lot of new faces have shown up and a lot of old faces have come out of the woodwork. There’s a lot more people doing things out in the open, I think. I think there’s a little bit of a resurgence in puppetry right now.

Rachel: If nothing else, I think we’re seeing an uptick in applications to our slam.

I didn’t know there was a scene. I thought it was mostly me working by myself until the conference at Seattle University…

Jenelle: It was a Puppeteers of America regional festival. That happens every other year. The region for us includes British Columbia, which is also having a regional festival in September, plus Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. Every couple of years, a guild in those areas wants to put on a festival, so they start organizing.

Rachel: That’s when I learned about the puppet community. It was good for that. And every other other year, there’s a national conference. The regional conferences are every other year, and the national conference fills the holes.

Jenelle: I think what happens is that puppeteers like to tinker. They like to perform, as well, but it’s isolating. I think, in the past, the national festivals have been for people who live away from each other to meet their tribe and hang out for a week. That seems to be easier to do when there are more shows and more visibility.

Rachel: Not to toot my own horn, but because I’m a new producer I feel I can say this, but I think Fussy Cloud has been good about that, too. It’s giving a reason to pull people together more often than every couple of years.

Jenelle: One thing that people overlook is that outside of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are hotbeds for creativity in puppetry. There’s a collaboration between us and Beady Little Eyes Puppet Slam in Portland. They do slams as often, if not more often, and they’re only three hours away. A lot of us cross pollinate and support each other that way.

How often do you put on shows? I know you have one coming up at Bumbershoot this weekend…

Jenelle: I think we’re going on a two-a-year cycle right now. 2013 saw four, which is a lot of work. Two feels like a really good work/play balance for us. Plus, it gives time for people to build shows they want to submit.

Rachel: Our next one is in January.

Jenelle: At the Theatre off Jackson, January 16 and 17.

I suspect that the show at Bumbershoot will be the first time a lot of people are exposed to Fussy Cloud, myself included. What can those people could expect from the show?

Rachel: Variety. Be prepared for many different types of puppeteering, and many different tones. We go from some plays that are really funny to one that is more melancholy.

Jenelle: The puppets will pull at your heartstrings a little bit, and they’ll make you laugh.

But there’s a good variety of methods of puppetry. We’ll have tabletop puppetry, we’ll have overhead shadows, and we’ll have one black light piece, some Muppet-style puppets, and some hand puppets.

Can you talk about your specific pieces?

Jenelle: Mine is tabletop-Bunraku. You may have seen photos of my cantankerous grandma. Me and another puppeteer will be operating her.

fussycloudpuppet

Rachel: She’s awesome. Mine, I think, is tabletop-other. (laughs) My puppet is a two-piece puppet: it has a head and a hand and they’re only vaguely attached to each other. There are also a lot of props that are part of the story.

Where do the ideas for your stories come from? Or what’s the process like for creating the story and the puppets?

Jenelle: This is an interesting question. I was in a writing conference this summer and that question came up. What inspires you to write a story? It was a room full of puppeteers and one playwright. All of the puppeteers said they get inspired by a character or picture or something, and that inspires me to build a puppet. The playwright had no visual inspiration with her work.

For me, it’s very visual. I’ll get inspired by watching people around town. I might see a janitor and think “What does that janitor want? What will that janitor do?” I’ll think about it and maybe write it down and put it in my trunk of ideas. I was also recently inspired by an old poem about cattle rustlers. I wrote a story about that.

Rachel: The piece I’m doing at Bumbershoot was actually commissioned. I don’t know if you know La Petite Mort, but she has the Dark Cabaret…

Yes! We follow each other on Twitter.

Oh cool! I’ve been in her cabaret a few times. For the one after she got married, she did some picking and choosing; I guess the grown-up word is “curating.” She said, “I would love for you to do a puppet act to the song ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ If you listen to it, it sounds like a sweet song, but it’s actually stalker-creepy. I want you to play with the idea of what if a vampire fell in love with the sun. Go!” I was handed my inspiration and built a story around that.

But frequently, I pull from pop culture and/or fairy tales.

What is the timeframe usually for creating a story and/or puppet? Does one take a lot longer than the other?

Jenelle: It all takes a lot longer than you think. (laughs)

It depends on the length of the piece and how complicated it is puppetry-wise. What’s the style of puppetry you’re using? Do you have to wait for things to dry? What are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? (laughs) To give you a politically-vague answer…

Rachel: I feel like making the puppet always takes longer, unless I’m doing object puppetry. In that case, I just take a Barbie doll and a spoon and I’m done.

I also like to do pieces where I get to eat something on stage. I’ve done two different short pieces where I got to eat a puppet. It was very satisfying!

You ate the puppet?

Rachel: I did the Boy Who Cried Wolf and made the boy out of fondant. I got to eat the boy’s head off at the end. Spoiler alert! I did another with Hansel and Gretel and they were cookies, so I got to eat them. No one else likes to do that. No one likes to clean up at the end. I don’t blame them.

You talked about your next slam being in January at Theatre Off Jackson. Can you talk about how the show at Bumbershoot will differ?

Jenelle: The Bumbershoot show is kind of our Best-Of. We asked artists who performed in the slam to join us, with specific pieces in mind. It was so that we would have a good balance to show.

The slam is more open to anyone who is amateur or professional; to try out something new or something they have performed before. We usually try to bring in at least one out of town artist that we know is a more refined act. The slams will be longer. Each piece is eight minutes or less. There’s a good variety of types of puppetry, as well as skill levels and experience. We like to give people a place to try out new things. We watched a few people grow into puppetry through the slam. It’s really great to see people’s inspirations spark.

Rachel: We give people a place to fail because that’s a part of it. Sometimes you don’t know that something isn’t going to work until you try it.

Jenelle: Another side effect is that we have such a great mix of people that they all meet each other. When you have more puppeteers who know each other, you know who to ask when you need help building something or if they can lend an ear to your story. Things like that.

Rachel: …or what kind of material makes a good hood?

I was just going to ask that with you doing two slams a year, where is the opportunity for people to fail and try out ideas before they’re ready?

Rachel: Interesting. I feel like if you have an eight minute piece, there are a lot of places in Seattle that you can perform it. There are several theaters that have cabarets. I feel like we can be the first place you can try it out. You can get audience feedback. We have also done a videotape feedback session. We’ve done it once but will do it again for anyone that is interested. We videotape it and sit down and talk about what we saw and what we thought worked or what we didn’t understand. That’s really valuable, I think.

If they start a piece with us, they can get our feedback and take it other places. For instance, Reed (Garber-Pearson), one of the other producers at Fussy Cloud, did a piece at Fussy Cloud and did it at Douglas Paasch Puppet Playhouse. I’ve taken things that I started in our slam over to Annex’s cabaret, Spin the Bottle.

I don’t think we’ve had the same piece in two slams and shown it progressing, though I suppose we would be open to that.

Jenelle: We’ve historically only accepted new works, things that people have not performed in the slam before, just to maintain that variety.

We always seem to have someone in the slam that we haven’t met before. We think it’s important to involve people in the community and try to reach out. We always have room for people to try new things.

If someone wanted to become involved in puppetry and the community, how should they go about it? Go to a slam? Contact either of you?

Rachel: We’re a good place to start. Coming to our shows are good places to start, as far as meeting people. You can also volunteer for our show, so that way you get to meet everyone who is performing. There’s also the Puppeteers of Puget Sound. They’re a local guild.

Jenelle: They’re a guild of Puppeteers of America.

Rachel: They have a Facebook page and put on events. That’s another way to get in touch with people. They can definitely contact us directly. We know a lot of people and can put them in contact with other people who like puppets.

Jenelle: I think as far as getting started performing, and creating, and getting involved in the community that way, if people have started their own work and want to send it to us for consideration in the slam, we’re open to that. People can reach out with specific needs like “I’m really interested in marionettes.” “There’s the Northwest Puppet Center, have you been there? It’s in Maple Leaf and they have a museum. Go check out one of their shows.” The Puppeteers of Puget Sound have a Facebook page, and so do we. We post more about the adult-oriented shows we hear about. The Puppeteers of Puget Sound post everything.

That is another question. Are you interested in children’s puppetry? The slam is adult-oriented only to give people the freedom to not censor themselves.

Rachel: We’ve had to clarify that from time to time. Someone who applied once thought that it had to actually be adult XXX. He said, “It’s not really adult but my main character’s nose kind of looks like a penis.” (laughs) We just mean that you could swear or use adult themes. It doesn’t have to be teaching us colors and shapes or XXX… although we’re way open to that.

Has anything close happened?

Rachel: We did have a burlesque act once. They were filling in for someone who had to drop, so they were more tangentially related. It was an Ernie and rubber duckie themed burlesque act.

Jenelle: Adult puppetry doesn’t necessarily mean blue.

Rachel: I was once in a puppet sex musical, so it does exist.

Jenelle: If someone wants to do that, our question is: what’s the purpose? What’s the story you’re telling and how does that further it? We don’t want it to be like someone has a penis puppet and they want to show it to everyone, so it’s on stage wiggling around and making everyone feel uncomfortable. That’s not puppetry to us, we’re storytellers first and foremost, and we want to encourage that.

Rachel: Our show at Bumbershoot is not necessarily for children, but I don’t think there’s anything specifically that they can’t see. It won’t help; people will bring their kids to it anyway. We’re just underlining that our mission statement is adult puppetry.

Jenelle: I don’t know if there are any curse words.

Rachel: I don’t either, but in the improv, I could always swear if that would help. It’s never a problem for me. Or I could try to not swear if there are a bunch of kids in the front row. I’ll do my solid best.

{Fussy Cloud Puppet Slam is at Bumbershoot on Saturday, August 30 at 6:45pm and on Monday, September 1 at 5:15pm, both shows on the Theatre Puget Sound Stage. Tickets and more info can be found here.}

Intiman’s Angels: Required Viewing Without Rapture

Prior Walter (Adam Stanley) has a divine encounter in Intiman's Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Prior Walter (Adam Stanley) has a divine encounter in Intiman’s Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches

If you’ve never seen Angels in America you need to see Intiman’s current production (at Cornish Playhouse through September 21st). If you’ve only seen the HBO film version, you need to see this production. If you’ve seen the show before you can sit this one out but you likely won’t because you’ll know that Angels in America is one of the great plays of the 20th Century. It has taken its place alongside Death of a Salesman, August: Osage County, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (I’d also make an argument for adding The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks to this list, but I might be in a minority). These are plays that define our national identity in terms that gain breadth from their specificity.

And yes, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the play is long, but also like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf it is vital and necessary that you stay for the whole performance. Plan on arriving late to work the next day if need be. The whole work is more than 7 hours of theatre. Part 1: Millennium Approaches is 3.5 hours long, including intermissions—yes, plural intermissions (Part 2: Perestroika opens September 3rd and runs in rep).

The play has a lot to say and it says it efficiently. Plot and event churn away. Famously there are even scenes that play simultaneously (an effect that isn’t entirely successful in this production). That’s how efficient it is, and yet it still takes 3.5 hours. Even if this production leaves room for improvement it’s worth it.

The play speaks of the American condition with joy, love, comedy, anxiety, and ambition all that makes America what it is. When the play debuted in the early 1990s it seemed remarkable that it did this through a story full of homosexuals and Mormons. Lately homosexuals and Mormons seem to dominate the American cultural landscape. Was playwright Tony Kushner prescient? Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Who’s to say—but does the play age well? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes (thus far).

What once was topical and current is now historical. Though we still fight mysterious and seemingly unstoppable viruses that rise out of Africa and wreak death and destruction in the face of fear and ignorance, the palpable fear of the AIDS epidemic now feels like the fear of the red scare Kushner references in the person of Ethel Rosenberg. It’s historical but present, if only because we never really outgrow our history. Director Andrew Russell leads his cast through the heavy meal of Kushner’s text with keen understanding and useful interpretive shades.

Intiman’s production is good but not the transcendent show it should be. The acting is mostly solid, with a cast that hails from the usual drama club of Seattle suspects. Charles Leggett delivers possibly his finest performance to date, disappearing into his role as the venal lawyer and Republican operative, Roy Cohn. Quinn Franzen is also excellent and nearly unrecognizable in the central role of Louis. Franzen’s accent fades over the course of some scenes but he lives fully inside this tightly wound bundle of intellect and anxiety. In fact he shares the one scene this production really nails. The other half of that scene is the ever-reliable Intiman stalwart, Timothy McCuen Piggee, who doubles as both—well, this is where it gets complicated.

Angels has a level of complexity that suggests something between a fugue and a 19th century melodrama. Be warned that Part 1 ends in a tangle of split ends and splicing comes late in the game of Part 2.

At the center we find a pair of couples. The most central of these are long-time boyfriends: the Jewish intellectual, Louis (Franzen), and the WASP-y Prior (Adam Standley). From the Mormon side we have the Valium-popping housewife, Harper (Alex Highsmith) and her rising star Republican (natch) lawyer husband, Joe (Ty Boice). For inciting incidents we have two diagnoses of AIDS: one for Prior and the other for the real historical figure, Roy Cohn (Leggett). Roy is Joe’s mentor and champion. Joe is Louis’s coworker.

Piggee plays Prior’s ex-boyfriend, Belize, but he also doubles as Harper’s hallucination, Mr. Lies. Roy has his own hallucination in the person of Ethel Rosenberg (Anne Allgood). There is a score of character, all told, and much doubling. Also there is an angel (Marya Sea Kaminski).

There is some great work here. In addition to the fine acting Jennifer Zeyl’s set tweaks the play’s traditional tabula rasa, evoking Greek tragedy, and both civic and eternal judgment with heavy steps, columns, and plinths. She jettison’s New York City specificity favoring thematic unity. Mark Mitchell’s costumes are perfectly researched for character, circumstance and tradition from Harper’s Mormon underwear to the big suits that hang off Roy’s shrinking frame and Ethel’s perfectly manicured ensemble.

Harper (Highsmith), Prior (Standley), Joe (Boice), and Louis (Franzen)
Harper (Highsmith), Prior (Standley), Joe (Boice), and Louis (Franzen)

Unfortunately the biggest moment fails. The lead-up to the angel’s entrance is powerful. Matt Starritt’s sound design sneaks up on us and then promises great things to come. Robert Aguilar’s lights open the door to astonishment. What we get is a Christmas tree topper. One can see the argument for the choice but it is neither sufficiently ironic nor adequately awe inspiring to produce anything more than disappointment, despite Kaminski’s best efforts.

It should be noted that Kaminski brings a big spark to every other scene she touches, whether playing a South Bronx derelict, a sympathetic nurse, or the friend and realtor of Joe’s mother back in Salt Lake. Few others show such consistency through their many roles. Anne Allgood shines as Ethel but drags in most of her other roles. Highsmith’s Martin Heller requires some endurance and graciousness from the audience, and even Piggee’s Mr. Lies lacks the verve of a compelling fantasy. Leggett is as good playing Prior’s Restoration era ancestor as he is in his primary role, and though Ty Boice struggles with his accent his medieval ancestor of Prior has great charisma.

For all this production’s achievements it shares the perennial Seattle theatre problem of a dragging pace. One can hear the gaps between lines that leave the dialogue feeling staccato and plodding until we get to the three-quarter mark of this first half of the play. In this scene Belize meets with Louis, who is wracked with guilt at leaving Prior when he can’t cope with the illness anymore. Louis covers his guilt, fear, and self-loathing by spewing intellectual folderol that quickly careers into blatant racism that finally drives Belize away. Franzen nails the New York pace while Piggee stays in the scene, engaged, listening, and responding through Belize’s repulsion and disconnection. This is an intensely emotionally driven scene that unearths the love and fear these men feel for Prior. Their different responses delineate the spectrum of humanity, our frailty, self-interest, compassion, and heroism. Here the cast, director and playwright find the same groove and the show fully lives up to its reputation.