The Year in Review: Junk Shots and Shattered Vases

Our critics pick the most memorable stage moments—not all of them good—of 2010.

Less than halfway into June’s first performance of The Female of the Species at ACT, after a psycho-fan (Renata Friedman) has taken a famous author (Suzy Hunt) hostage, the latter’s estranged daughter (Morgan Rowe) joins the interrogation with far more verve than expected. So exhilarated was Rowe’s character to take revenge on her mother that the actress slammed a vase on a desk for emphasis—and the glass prop accidentally shattered. Shards were everywhere, Friedman was barefoot, and 45 minutes of slapstick and physical mayhem remained in the one-act play. Such moments of suspense—in which the performers, stage crew, and director share the audience’s terror—trump almost anything scripted or choreographed. Jeopardy electrifies the air. New lines are invented (the author tells her captor, “Put your boots on!”). Blocking is amended (Rowe wanders into the kitchen for a broom). Within a few minutes, the disaster is under control, and the pros manage to make the whole episode seem like something in the script. But later, when another character stamps his foot for emphasis, then winces suddenly in pain, we know the pain’s for real. MARGARET FRIEDMAN

Pacific Northwest Ballet has been performing works by George Balanchine since the company was founded, but in May we got a chance to see where Balanchine may have gotten some of his best ideas. PNB Education Director Doug Fullington‘s lecture/demonstration on the relationship between Balanchine and Marius Petipa, the architect of classical ballet, was laced with snippets of fabulous choreography danced with zest by the company. But it was Fullington’s commentary, pointing out similarities in structure, vocabulary, and pattern, that made the audience feel so much smarter than when they’d walked in the door. SANDRA KURTZ

After nearly two decades reviewing theater, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of dancers Cherdonna and Lou lying on the floor of the Century Ballroom in October, ooching like inchworms across the floor—except that Cherdonna’s miniskirt had been transformed into a none-too-wide belt, giving us an unwanted eyeful of Jody Kuehner’s lady-bits. Dance? Theater? Performance art? Um, no, despite the protestations of letter-writers and personal pals who sought to defend It’s a Salon! I did take personal affront at this, the longest hour I’ve ever spent in the reviewer’s chair. I knew I’d take heat for calling it a load of crap, too. There are always a handful of dilettantes who believe that if something is stupefyingly incomprehensible, that makes it “thought-provoking” or “challenging.” Sure, OK. I’ll bite. What were we supposed to think about? “Ah,” they’d say with certainty, “that’s the mote in your eye: a failure of imagination.” I can tell you this: Kuehner’s junk left nothing to the imagination. KEVIN PHINNEY

Seattle Opera made it considerably harder to complain about the neglect of new music after the company unveiled Daron Hagen’s Amelia in May, on a daringly contemporary topic: a woman’s struggle to deal with the loss of her father in the Vietnam War. The handsome production was sprinkled with stars (Nathan Gunn, Jane Eaglen), and Hagen’s beguiling music helped Gardner McFall’s semi-autobiographical libretto rise to moments of affecting drama—most memorably the concurrent, climactic death/birth scenes in adjoining onstage hospital rooms. (It was harder still to kvetch after the Seattle Symphony announced a project to commemorate Gerard Schwarz’s last season: a series of 18 [!] commissions, with a brand-new work on nearly every program this season.) GAVIN BORCHERT

Sometimes accidents made by deeply talented artists should be viewed as alternate interpretations. This is how I felt on the opening night of Three Tall Women at the Rep in October, when indisputably masterful actress Megan Cole called for her lines five times in the first act. In the absence of context, you might say “Unforgiveable!” or ask, “How could that happen?” But consider this: She was playing an Alzheimer’s patient in the throes of delirium. And playwright Edward Albee had given her scads of recursively looping lines. And for me, these unfeigned memory lapses were preferable to seeing a performer studiously recall every syllable while affecting forgetfulness. Besides, the line calls lent a deliciously absurd, Beckett-like mood: Her requests were answered by a booming female voice on the loudspeaker, which Cole then echoed. It was utterly eerie, and it better conveyed the helplessness and frustration of Alzheimer’s than did Albee’s well-crafted dialogue. Friedman

Christmas plays are universally mediocre, and ArtsWest’s December revival of A Tuna Christmas initially sounded as terrible as last year’s Plaid Tidings. Its setup—two actors playing 22 residents of the small redneck town of Tuna, Texas, on a virtually prop-free stage—did nothing to bolster expectations. But against all odds, the production is sharply written, nuanced, and extremely funny. And it features tour-de-force performances from Jay Jenkins and Buddy Mahoney that make you want to miss your train and linger in Tuna’s Main Street diner until the night janitor kicks you out. (The show ends Thursday; go see it.) MIKE SEELY

It was homecoming week at On the Boards’ Pat Graney retrospective in October, onstage and in the audience, too. Graney revived three of her most significant works (Faith, Sleep, and Tattoo) in trimmed-down versions, so that her rich imagery and awkward virtuosity were even more dense. It was like seeing the entire Ring cycle in a single evening. Many of the original performers came back for the revival, and many of the original audience members were there as well. Intermissions were full of catching up and the performances full of remembering—of what the dancers used to do and who you used to be when you first saw them. KURTZ

The notion of a first-time actress being cast in a lead role at a reputable professional theater and holding her own is a total myth. Yet 2010 was the year ArtsWest turned that myth on its head. Cindy Bradder had created costumes and hairstyles for ArtsWest, but never ventured in front of the curtain. Yet when she strode onstage in late January for her turn as Molly in Love Song, she owned it—and the audience—instantly. Love Song was a four-hander with nowhere to hide. Bradder sure didn’t, nor would anyone have wanted her to. SEELY

Don’t just take my word for it. You can find 11-year-old Clarke Hallum on YouTube, in an appearance earlier this year at a preview event for the 5th Avenue Theater’s A Christmas Story: The Musical! Director Eric Rosen must have known he’d found a diamond in the rough when he received an audition tape of the Olympia sixth-grader, who was just wrapping up his summer role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at the Capital Playhouse. The day after Rosen saw the kid on video, Hallum was flown to Hollywood for a one-on-one with the director. Needless to say, Hallum got the starring role as Ralphie in a show that continues through Dec. 30. Watching the calm self-assurance he brings to the part is to witness the difference between skill and raw talent. He has plenty of skill already, but it’s dwarfed by his enormous voice and ability to play a role without playing a kid playing a role. PHINNEY

Five months later, I remain haunted by a particular performance in the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that Freehold’s Engaged Theatre developed to take into prisons. In two small roles, Eva M. Abram left searing, unforgettable images. As the Soothsayer who warns Caesar to “beware the Ides of March,” she captivated the audience as she circled the stage, ever so slowly erecting rows of ominous tripods with divination sticks. Her glacial, somberly economical movements seemed to unweave the fabric of time itself. Even more powerfully, she reappeared later as Compassion, a role invented for this production. After poet Cinna has been mistakenly killed by the mob, Compassion holds him as life drains from his body. The scene recalled Michaelangelo’s Pietà, and Abram gave not a hint of staginess or melodrama—just pure love for a soul cut down. It’s a tableaux that could also follow bar fights or gang wars. To take that image of compassion into prisons—now there’s a radical act. FRIEDMAN

The Seattle Symphony‘s June announcement of its new music director, Ludovic Morlot—who’ll take over next September from Gerard Schwarz after his 26 seasons in charge—startled probably everyone but the players Morlot had charmed and the board members he’d impressed after his two recent guest-conducting gigs. For the former, the change will mean the easing of intensifying offstage tensions, however minimally (to my ears) they affected what happened onstage. For the audience, it’ll mean some exciting new ideas—or so we’ll see in February, when Morlot and SSO announce their plans for the 2011-12 season. BORCHERT

Washington Ensemble Theatre staged two plays this year that demonstrated both breadth and audacity. January’s Hunter Gatherers was a dark comedy so steeped in the absurdism of the ’60s that it’s hard to believe it hadn’t been written by Jules Feiffer. But credit goes instead to thoroughly post-millennial playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Two couples meet for an annual dinner where they begin to come apart and reconnect with one another in ways that are at first unexpected, then jarring, and finally homicidal. The WET ensemble showed the same wit and verve in April’s RoboPop! The show had a decidedly Atari-esque feel, with deliberately low-tech costumes and sets that nonetheless managed to convey a hint of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a dash of 1984, and elements from the golden and unapologetically cheesy era of pre-Thriller MTV videos. With its elementary plot line, synth-heavy score, and terrifically tongue-in-cheek performances, this may have been the most cost-effective joyride of the year. Phinney

Choreographer Mark Haim had a great 2010, staging his beautiful solo No More Sweet Hours of Rapture to music from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, creating a showcase for the equally beautiful Betsy Cooper at Seattle Dance Project’s January show. Then for June’s Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards, he premiered This Land Is Your Land, contrasting a set of postmodern walking patterns with an idiosyncratic collection of “accessories”—from a Starbucks coffee cup to an Uzi. And in October he showed a revised version of Buoyant Despite Slump, featuring the invaluable Jim Kent dancing to Chopin with pink satin ribbons holding up his wool socks—another charming non sequitur image from a repertory stocked with eccentricities. KURTZ

There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing a new play for the first time. Eric Lane Barnes’ Rapture of the Deep is a show that continues to haunt—not only for its music (like a Protestant worship service at full gale), but for a turbulent story line that explores the fine line between madness and spiritual ecstasy. Family issues and betrayals, loves won and scorned, and a general mess of emotions roam the play’s landscape. I’m not sure Rapture is quite ready for anything larger than the Balagan Theatre, where it debuted in September, but the possibilities still have me in sway. Should Barnes discover how to streamline his plot and really sort out the motivations of his central characters, I believe his play will be worthy of a major restaging. Barnes’ characters, to paraphrase Pat Benatar, can’t seem to stop using God as a weapon, and the effect is riveting. PHINNEY

The organizers of the spring’s Bernstein Festival persuaded a couple dozen ensembles to take on the work of a composer/conductor with—well, no significant ties to Seattle at all, though it did result in a zingy and affectionate production of his On the Town and a natty staging of his problematic but gorgeous Candide, both at the 5th Avenue. Each, respectively, offered a spectacular diva turn: Sarah Rudinoff went off like fireworks as brassy cab driver Hildy in her would-be seduction number “I Can Cook Too,” while Laura Griffith sang as good as she looked (a brunette Grace Kelly in Dior) in that showiest of all possible arias, “Glitter and Be Gay.” BORCHERT