Having trouble choosing what to see among the rush of Seattle openings? I went to most of them this weekend (Thursday-Sunday) — five shows freshly opened, plus a second sighting (with understudy) of one that opened the week before — to help you decide.
For all their differences in subject and form, some overlapping themes of grit, loss, family, and comedy emerged. Here are my takeaways from each.
Sara Porkalob @ Cafe Nordo: Dragon Mama
You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Maria.
Sara Porkalob has regaled audiences in Seattle and beyond with tales of her mighty grandma. In Dragon Lady, the first in the Porkalob family series known as the Dragon Cycle, the elder Porkalob (Maria Sr.) is celebrated; fearless and peerless.
Here, the second installment adds more layers to the story. Centered on Sara’s mother (Maria Jr.), Dragon Mama shows some cracks in Dragon Lady’s armor and how her daughter was left to pick up the pieces, occasionally raising her younger siblings. That, in turn, left her tank on empty when trying to parent her own daughter, Sara. When Maria Jr. makes the rather stunning decision to flee to Alaska, she leaves her young daughter in care of the same family members who she couldn’t lean on, or had to take care of, while growing up.
The thing about the Dragon tales is they’re never a victim story. It’s not a blame game. As audience members, we’re not invited to tsk and scold anyone’s decisions. These are stories told with a ton of love, and clear eyes. We’re left to understand that Maria Jr. was always coming back; she just had to figure out herself before she could figure out how to be a mother.
Maria Jr.’s journey takes her to the northern-most state, working long hours on the fish processing floor of a boat, to send money back home; and into a stable, loving relationship with a woman who sings at a gay bar. Where queerness had meant self-destruction with bad influences back in Bremerton, on the boat and in town she finds self-determination.
Porkalob’s family sagas always leave me wanting more, and I know I’m not the only one. As a storyteller, her openness and warmth are like a Snuggie; but her insight is razor-sharp.
‘Dragon Mama’ runs through 3/6 at Cafe Nordo in Pioneer Square. Tickets are $30-$55 (limited number of reduced price tickets available for every performance), here. Note: unlike most Nordo shows, dinner is not included in the show. A separate pre-show dinner option is available.
‘Dragon Lady’ opens 2/11 and runs in repertory with ‘Dragon Mama’ through 3/6; tickets at the same link.
The 5th Avenue Theatre: Disney’s Beauty & the Beast
I see a lot of theatre, so I don’t arrive at this conclusion lightly: This may be the best show I’ve seen in years. (I’m talking pre-pandemic years, when years meant something.)
I’m not much of a Disney fan, nor am I necessarily drawn to big musicals — unlike many apt to flock to this, a big Disney musical. But this show, brought to life by director Jay Woods and the cast and creative team she assembled, brought a vision, relevance, and emotional depth I didn’t know existed in Disney material. Oh, and it’s funny — keel-over funny — to keep things from going too dark. Maybe it’s a sign of everything staying too bottled-up in the pandemic years, but I had tears and laughter rolling at the same time — and felt no compulsion to stop either.
Porscha Shaw’s acting talents are familiar from several stand-out shows (including the big-stage Nina Simone: Four Women at the Rep and the intimate, emotionally raw Hoodoo Love with Sound Theatre), but taking center stage at The 5th, with presence and vocals big enough to fill its lofty risers, is a whole separate skill set. Her performance here as Belle sings loud and clear: Shaw is a bona fide Disney princess. And the cast and creative elements surrounding her are incredible.
Expect a more introspective review to come. In the meantime, get your tickets now — they’re selling out fast, and the show already closes this Sunday, February 6. This is the rare show where that ever-present fear of missing out should be heeded.
‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ runs through 2/6 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $69-$199, here.
Seattle Rep: Fannie – The Music & Life of Fannie Lou Hamer
Her grit is undeniable. Fannie Lou Hamer was a lion of voting rights, who had the courage and persistence to demand that the voting rights promised to Black people in 1870 actually mean something. That struggle finally bore fruit with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, almost a century after. The victories of Hamer’s struggle are clear and lasting; and important enough that they’re under attack still now, decades later.
Less appreciated, I think, is the amount of personal loss Hamer had to endure to get there. Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer alludes to some of the events: being terrorized, jailed, beaten, silenced; losing a grown child; and herself suffering an early death. Between the lines, we can pause to read the loss: security, peace, comfort, physical health, childbearing, and self-care.
Hamer’s story is resurrected and dramatized for Seattle audiences, thanks to this new play with music by Seattle-based playwright Cheryl L. West (in a co-production between Seattle Rep and the Goodman Theatre). The compact, 70-minute, one-woman show presents Hamer’s life in sometimes-wrenching detail. Music is shown as one source of her courage, channeling her faith; and the three-piece band, coupled with the star’s powerful voice and compelling portrayal, had no trouble bringing that courage palpably to the stage.
The lead, E. Faye Butler, is talented and engaging; you won’t go wrong seeing her bring Hamer to life, as I did on opening night. But her local understudy is the reason I had to see this show again: Any time you get a chance to see Shaunyce Omar in a hard-hitting role, don’t miss it. She didn’t disappoint. Omar is scheduled to perform next this Thursday night (February 3), and Butler scheduled to perform the other dates this week.
‘Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer’ runs through 2/13 at Seattle Rep at the Seattle Center. Tickets are $24-$98, here. Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for every performance; see info here.
Seattle Public Theater: Mala
This solo show, starring Pilar O’Connell, is a show about death. More precisely, it’s a show about processing a glacially slow — and then all-too-quick — onset of a mother’s death.
The play by Melinda Lopez is an insightful script, and O’Connell acts it beautifully — no easy feat for what’s essentially an 80-minute monologue. The appealing set by Parmida Ziaei is reminiscent of glaciers, a tie-in to a (mythical, it seems) manner of death in which an elderly person chooses to set adrift on an ice berg. Tight direction from Sophie Franco keeps the narrative engaging.
For those looking for an intimate, quiet, serious play about serious material, Mala is a good choice. Myself, I’m generally looking for a little more spectacle and uplift right now. Mala has some laugh lines, and O’Connell delivers for maximum impact. But I just came out feeling like kind of a bummer.
‘Mala’ runs through 2/13 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets are $5+ (sliding scale available to all), here.
ArtsWest: Monsters of the American Cinema
My father was a monster. My husband is a ghost. I don’t have the mind for more than one.
In Monsters of the American Cinema, a widower (Remy, played by Lamar Legend) raises his deceased husband’s teenage son (nicknamed Pup, played by Alexander Kilian). They run the small town’s drive-in movie theater, trade film references as a second language, and ward off (or succumb to) their own frequent dramatized nightmares.
All of that makes for an intriguing — if occasionally convoluted — script, by queer, Black playwright Christian St. Croix.
But this production, the play’s world premiere, was one that was hard to engage with — and it’s tough to tell if the issues lie in the script or the interpretation, as the staging was hindered by some key problems.
Sometimes a hulking frame of a set — like those constructed for Hir and Head Over Heels when ArtsWest used its more traditional thrust configuration — facilitates a production’s action very well. And other times, like in the theatre’s current production, it overtakes the action.
The realistic two-room set, designed by Ryan Dunn (who’s done many a successful set at ArtsWest), also has a ladder-connected platform stacked on top of it, meant to represent the drive-in theater’s controls. It’s all very interesting to look at. But its enormity, with a multitude of thick wooden beams, was particularly ill-suited for ArtsWest’s new arrangement of theatre-in-the-round (or theatre-in-the-rhombus). On top of severely inhibiting sight lines from all directions, the sprawl of the set, rather than the needs of the drama, dictated the actors’ movements; they were always futzing with something, or wandering rooms, or traversing a ladder. Wandering the outer edge, presumably trying to keep all four sides involved, they had to struggle to keep out of the audience’s laps. It’s no treat for the audience, either — unique to the left section, the proximity of the front row means you’re right up in the “Petri dish” of a dirty teenager’s bedroom. (I rarely stray from my assigned seats, but that sent me fleeing to a vacant spot further back in the center section.)
And while the set was a frustrating obstruction, the characters’ interactions with each other were usually a worse problem. Remy is so often fawning over his de facto son, calling him “Puppy,” and whining for attention, I half expected him to start petting him and play fetch. Any teenager slamming the door on that obsessive attention would be perfectly understandable. So while the eventual conflict is supposedly over Pup’s anti-gay jeering, it’s muddled by the rest of what we’ve seen in their relationship — obsessive, stifling, ready for a fracture from any cause.
In the usual instance, a director will translate for the audience and help clean up unintended ambiguity as rehearsals go on, before the audience is left with it. Here, the director (Legend) is one of two actors — making it awfully hard to get in there and direct while being far enough removed to see things through an outside viewer’s eyes.
Monsters presents an intriguing idea, and I love it when new work finds its legs in Seattle. Fans of monster movies might enjoy all the references, and those who love to mine new works for meaning might enjoy the challenge. As for this fan of new works, I’m not quite sure what I just watched.
‘Monsters of the American Cinema’ runs through 2/20 at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Tickets are $18.50-$123.50 (sliding scale available for all), here.
Taproot Theatre: See How They Run
Farce is hard to get the comedy just right. There’s a fine line between riotous (enjoyable!) and overplayed (unbearable!). For that reason, I’m not often drawn to this style of comedy — but, done right, it elicits more hearty, easy laughter and delight than I thought possible. (See my review of Harlequin’s ‘Noises Off’ here for a good example of this.)
So a farce is worth a whirl when, as director Karen Lund notes, we could all really use a laugh right now.
Unfortunately, this show didn’t hit all the right notes. While not unbearable — mostly — Taproot’s See How They Run fell largely on the side of wearisome and overplayed, rather than riotous.
If this style of comedy is your thing, you might find moments of great joy in Taproot’s production. Sophia Franzella’s performance as the Ida the maid (who’s simultaneously daft and cunning), is spot-on and reason enough to see the show. But much of the rest relies heavily on yelling and shrieking exchanges that are far too much for the space, and — at least for me, perhaps the grinch of comedy — grows wearisome fast.
Happily, the show came in at around two hours with intermission, far under the run time predicted in the program. Unhappily, I was all too happy to reach the early dismissal.
‘See How They Run’ runs through 3/5 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood. Tickets are $20-$50, here, with a pay-what-you-choose performance tomorrow (2/2).
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.