Psycho Beach Party
Northwest Actors Studio; ends Sat., July 31
In program notes, director Margot Bordelon confesses that she's too young to be familiar with playwright Charles Busch's influences, so she spent the last three months immersing herself in the hormonal Hollywood kitsch that Busch is spoofing. It's obvious Bordelon relished doing her homework, and she gets an A for effort, though enjoying the bright-eyed result requires some goodwill toward a production that has to study so hard in order to be amusing.
Busch's randy little parody is a cross-pollination of Gidget flicks with the hyperventilating kind of pop psychology favored by Tennessee Williams or the Alfred Hitchcock of claptrap like Marnie. Moony tomboy Chicklet (Emily Chisholm) just wants to be one of the guys riding the waves, but none of the wolfish, homoerotic hipsters wrestling each other on the beach will, er, throw her a bone. "Me teach you to surf?" huffs lead hunk Star Cat (Kevin Pitman). "I'd rather teach a chicken to lay an elephant's turd!" Poor Chicklet won't get a break until her dominatrix split personality awakens for a razor rampage that will separate some unsuspecting sun worshippers from their pubic hair. You get the idea: Busch has the heart of Annette Funicello, but the soul of a drag queen.
On opening night, the ensemble was still unsure of when to hold for laughs in all the foul-mouthed mania—understandable, since Bordelon has directed each joke to be the joke and, hell, how's an actor supposed to get smoothly through the evening with that task looming over every line? No one in the cast of happy Cornish students and alums seems well versed in the art of tossing one off—Busch's stuff is all about the odd throwaway line—and it may take you most of the first act to stop worrying about the fact that Bordelon seems to have cheerfully choreographed and cross-referenced every last movement, right down to the rim shots that punctuate most of the punch lines. It's a funny show, sure, but it isn't organically funny as often as something this naughty and lightweight should be.
Still, you can't argue with what makes you laugh, and unless you're determined to be an awful pain in the ass, the sheer ingenuousness of this manic bunch will eventually get you when it counts. Bordelon must have shown her company a good time, and they're wildly determined to share the favor with us, particularly Chisholm, who would clearly jump off a bridge if Bordelon told her we'd get a chuckle out of it. Her delirious performance is sometimes more about twisting your arm than tickling your funny bone, but you'll cry uncle the second you realize her generosity knows no bounds; I can't think of the last time I saw an actor lick a co-star's armpit. She's good people—so is Annalyn Lehnig as her devoted dyke gal pal, Berdine—and that's enough for me. STEVE WIECKING
JEM Arts Center; ends Sun., July 25
Shock Brigades is a righteous Frankenstein's monster of political renegade theater—part surrealistic agitprop, part historical documentary, and part spine-tingling lionization of women's roles in modern warfare. Despite its cascade of narratives and diverse storytelling elements, it is a united piece of work, driven by a strong, confident vision that grounds itself in the reality of everyday heroism in a world gone nuts.
In telling the story of organized resistance by women in Vietnam, Nazi Germany, Nicaragua, and South Africa, the play combines an array of devices, the most powerful of which is a heavily rhythmical singing and chanting that works almost like a call-and-response between the cast and the stories they tell. The action is highly percussive, almost martial—feet stamp, hands clap, wooden rods smack the floor. For all the noise, though, the atmosphere created is anything but harsh or threatening. You would be hard-pressed to find a more talented ensemble than the collection of actors who lend themselves body and soul to this production, and the play seems an act of joyous defiance, a bloody but ultimately affirming dance in the face of political treachery.
Sheila Daniels, who adapted and directed, says she found in her research that "women were not much different than men in war: capable of hatred and violence, of love and courage, and most of all of great camaraderie." True, and she does a fantastic job avoiding easy distaff sentimentality while at the same time evoking the tumult of conflicting emotions—hatred, love, courage, violence—that can overtake combatants. Yet the question arises: What drives these women to fight? The answer is as familiar as it is worthy of disgust: men. Not any men, but men in positions of absolute power, and that, more than anything, seems to be the underlying constant here. As with the dances for the disappeared in Pinochet's Chile, the play shows women pushed to the limits of endurance, fighting for dignity and freedom. And in that they possess something men just can't seem to grasp—the ability to say "stop." RICHARD MORIN
Bagley Wright Theater; ends Sat., July 31
Of the stock roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory, the lead sopranos are the trickiest to cast. Gilbert's vanilla ingenue parts get their share of witty lines, but even in the hands of the most charismatic actresses, they often fade alongside the character roles; Aline in The Sorcerer or Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance are more plot devices than human beings. Yet Sullivan's soprano writing is so acrobatically challenging that you really have no choice but to cast for voice first and comic skill second. The risk is that you end up with, well, Linda Ronstadt—a long-lashed, apple-cheeked cipher with great pipes.
So the main strength of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's Pinafore is that they found someone who both hits the high notes and more than holds her own amid the clowning: Amanda Brown's Josephine is adorably smart, elegantly vivacious, and a head taller than her Ralph (Scott Rittenhouse), the sailor who loves her. She brings the production a special champagne fizz.
The rest of the cast is flamboyant and charming. Jon Palmason as her father, the ship's Capt. Corcoran, looks startlingly like Gilbert himself, a Victorian zeppelin in muttonchops. Scott Bessho, resplendent in an opulent silver-white wig, plays Sir Joseph with a touch of Dickensian lunacy. Nancy Gentemann Hebert makes a young, Carmen-esque Buttercup, a fresh approach to Gilbert's usual comic-old-woman alto role—never mind the fact that for plot purposes Buttercup has got to be at least 20 years older than the captain (or that Josephine loves a man who turns out to be her father's age—this is early Gilbert, and he eventually learned to sew up plot holes like this).
Between projects, Gilbert kept busy with his Bab Ballads, light verses which he often used as workshops for ideas that would later find their way into his librettos for Sullivan. One of these became the basis of the 1951 one-act ballet Pineapple Poll, which the society is offering in collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theater as a curtain-raiser to Pinafore. The score, which presents a considerable challenge to the society's pickup orchestra, is a pastiche by Charles Mackerras of several dozen Sullivan tunes; the springy, busy choreography, new for this production, is by Donald Byrd. It's an affectionate, lightly spoofy homage to G&S's world of topsy-turvydom, and an effervescent toast to open the society's gala 50th-anniversary production. GAVIN BORCHERT