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Taking Stock: My Hopeful, Cynical Year in Seattle Theatre

For months, I’ve had an old tweet by comic Chris Fleming printed out and pinned at eyeball level behind my work computer:

theatre company: the work we do is now more vital than ever
*performs oldass play slightly worse than it’s ever been performed before*

This has (understandably) been a year of cynicism. Like many people, I’ve been gleefully rubbing my hands, making tired “dumpster fire” jokes and waiting for 2017 to be over, skeptical of the old guard and the bad-faith marketing-speak selling us uninspired art. But as I spread out my recent theatre programs over the office floor, my attitude shifted. What a marvelous year full of marvelous shows, made by marvelous and dedicated people, pouring their hearts out and working their asses off. Maudlin though it may sound, if that’s not worth getting out of bed for, I don’t know what is.

Pinned next to that tweet is the program from Washington Ensemble Theatre’s Cherdonna’s Doll’s House, a rectangle of neon-yellow paper festooned with hearts and stickers and glued-on rhinestones, that reads, in loopy, scrawled marker:

WELCOME TO MY PLAY!
❤️, CHERDONNA

Theatre requires your physical presence and focused attention for an extended period of time. You can’t sample a little bit, say I know what this is and it’s not for me and move on. Time being the finite resource that it is, you can only see so much—and you can’t feel that Cherdonna-level enthusiasm without an in-the-flesh experience.

I felt it seeing captivating cabaret artist Jomama Jones at On the Boards, and almost everything in The Other Season at Seattle Rep, which presents one-night readings of wonderful new plays. In leaning into the young woman sobbing next to me, after the lights came up on musical Fun Home. In my inspiring conversations with director Malika Oyetimein and actor/writer Sara Porkalob, with Catherine Blake Smith as she prepared to take over leadership at Annex Theatre, with Eddie DeHais and Alyza DelPan-Monley of devised company DangerSwitch, with Ana Maria Campoy of Proof Porch Project, with BenDeLaCreme about his brilliant new full-length cabaret-drag show, with Brandon Ivie about his new musical theatre-development residency at Village Theatre. It was a year of unconventional spaces, honest performances and generous storytelling. In no particular order, these are the moments in Seattle theatre I’m still thinking about at year’s end.

The Odyssey
Seattle Repertory Theatre’s iteration of Public Works, the community theatre project of the Public Theater in New York, was a massive onstage explosion—in a great way. As manifested by associate artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski and artistic engagement coordinator Simone Hamilton, some 100 people of all ages came together to tell the story of Odysseus and his dangerous 19-year journey. A small group of professionals including Justin Huertas and Alexandra Tavares led the massive community ensemble—kids and seniors, youth choir members and top-notch dance groups—in delivering an open-hearted, energetic and wonderfully lo-fi show.

Proof Porch Project
This bilingual adaptation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer winning play about a loving family of dysfunctional geniuses and a game-changing math proof was an unexpectedly moving production. The free, outdoor production was directed by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez; the play takes place on the family porch, and PPP presents it on people’s porches to make the show both accessible and personal. From where I was sitting, on a metal folding chair in a Beacon Hill backyard, that mission was accomplished.

Let the Right One In
That the bleak, washed-out winter forest locale of Let the Right One In managed to be both welcoming and terrifying was an incredible trick of theatre craft; that the vampire story within it was both heartbreaking and gory was doubly so. I am eternally grateful to Seattle Theatre Group for continuing to bring National Theatre of Scotland to Seattle. The physical specificity, the flawless design, the willingness to stage the unstageable—NTS creates enveloping theatrical worlds, and I want to see every one of them.

Bright Half Life
While I didn’t know at the time this play would be one of the last New Century Theatre Company show I’d ever see, I’m so glad I had a chance to enjoy the company’s take on Tanya Barfield’s hummingbird-light love story. Directed by HATLO and with two marvelous performances by Rhonda J. Soikowski and Tracy Michelle Hughes, the story flits around in time, showing us just enough slices of a shared life to creating a rich, whole portrait of a relationship. Sigh.

Blues for Mister Charlie
In a nondescript church in the Rainier Valley, theatre company The Williams Project presented James Baldwin’s 1964 play about a young Black man’s murder in a small Southern town. Somehow the generic environs made the play even more powerful, the spareness highlighting the talented cast made up of local and national actors and musicians that needed nothing more than Baldwin’s words and each other to present a shattering, timely play. It’s a great reminder of how few bells and whistles you need to make excellent theatre.

Cherdonna’s Doll’s House
Welcome to my plaaaaaaay!” Cherdonna Shinatra (Jody Kuehner) smashed up Ibsen’s proto-feminist play A Doll’s House, ground it into the carpet with Nilla Wafers and somehow transformed it into a treatise on both women in theatre and our cultural approach to The Theatrical Canon. The show was made with so much evident love and enthusiasm, devoid of cynicism or smugness—if you’re going to try and reinvent a classic, I’d suggest asking yourself: What would Cherdonna do?

Here Lies Love
When it came time to see Here Lies Love, the much-hyped immersive musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, walking into the transformed Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Rep was as much a trip as the show itself. The main floor of seats were gone, replaced by a huge rotating stage in the center of the floor, a DJ booth in one corner, screens around the perimeter, and a cast so close you could touch them telling the story of Imelda Marcos’s rise to fame and power. Regional theatre tends toward the risk-averse, and seeing a company invest in a new format was exciting.

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