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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Art and
Saturday Night Fever

Also see Jonathan's recent review of Hamlet

Art isn't easy. Never mind creating it (or even trying to make a living from it). For a serious challenge, try defining, describing or even conversing about it. Like its not-so-distant cousin, pornography, we may not be able to put our finger on what it is, but we know it when we see it. And woe betide anyone who disagrees with our definition. While wars have been fought over religion, I firmly believe that the battles over art come close to delegating it with religion and politics as taboo subjects at the dinner table.

Art is perhaps the most intensely personal event and creation possible and as a result serves equal time as a uniting and dividing force. It hits us in the places where words do not provide adequate communication, being the realm of emotion and feeling, which is why we bond dearly with those who agree with us and lash out at anybody who doesn't. Don't believe me? Go on All That Chat and make either of the following posts: "Such-and-such is the best show ever written" or "Such-and-such is the biggest piece of crap ever allowed on the Broadway stage." I guarantee you will at least start a skirmish.

Art
R. Hamilton Wright and
John Procaccino in Art

The battle over art provides the catalyst for the Tony Award winning play by Yasmina Reza simply and aptly titled Art, currently playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The premise is simple: Serge (Laurence Ballard) has paid a handsome sum for a new painting, a white-on-white canvas by a trendy modern artist. His friend Marc (John Procaccino) refuses to acknowledge it as art and can not believe Serge would pay even a fraction of what he did for the piece. Caught in the middle is Yvan (R. Hamilton Wright) who tries to keep the piece but ignites a full-scale feud in the process. While the conflict in the show is primarily fueled by arguments over art, the play is really about the boundaries and psychology of friendships, detailing how we define our friendships and in turn define ourselves by our friends.

In truth, I am more than a little perplexed over all the attention and awards this slight little play has received. At its heart, Art is little more than a Seinfeld script with a thin veneer of artistic discussion; scratch that veneer and you find the play is really about, well, nothing. Even at an intermissionless ninety minutes in length, it still manages to be highly repetitious, rehashing the same arguments and debates over and over again. It is one of those shows whose message appears to be meaningful during its viewing, but quickly vanishes from the mind after you leave. Art's main purpose is to provide a bravura tour de force vehicle for three talented actors to let loose, and in this regard the show truly shines.

The Seattle Rep's production of Art is blessed with three actors who have had a long time association both on and off stage, giving them terrific chemistry from the word go. This past connection lends greatly to the script, which is woefully lacking in reasons for the three to have any sort of relationship. The three actors shine in their respective parts. Laurence Ballard finds the perfect mixture of giddy stuffiness in the part of Serge, the dermatologist who seems to have bought the infamous painting for status reasons, but may actually find resonances in it as well. John Procaccino, an actor I have never warmed to before, was actually very enjoyable (if recalling Alan Alda a bit too often) as the acerbic intellectual, Marc, who feels betrayed by the notion that any friend of his would even buy such a painting. The most compelling reason to see Art is R. Hamilton Wright's incredible performance as Yvan, the friend caught in the middle of the two warring factions. Partly due to the writing which provides Yvan with the best lines and moments, and sets him up as the only character that seems to have a life outside of the play, and mostly due a truly remarkable performance, R. Hamilton repeatedly comes close to stopping show with his emotional and physical pyrotechnics.

Art runs through April 28th at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information, visit www.seattlerep.org. Tickets range from $15 to $42 and anyone under 25 may purchase tickets for $10 (call 206-423-2222 for details)

There are two good reasons to see the touring production of Saturday Night Fever, currently playing at Seattle's Paramount Theatre: the high-energy, flawless dancing and the incredibly energetic and passionate cast. Well, three, if you have a major nostalgia craving for disco dancing and Bee Gees' tunes. Otherwise the show is a bit of a mess, due to an incredibly bad book and a director who does not seem to have any trust in the material.

Saturday Night Fever, which had its genesis in a magazine article on the dance craze that was sweeping the country in the '70s, is of course best known for providing John Travolta with his breakout hit. The plot was slender even then: Tony Manero works all day and suffers the indignities heaped upon him by his family so that he can be a star during the weekends at the local disco. He and his West Side Story-esque gang of friends alternate between dancing up a storm, being sexually aggressive towards any available female and duking it out with rival gangs. His evolution from jive talking borough boy to slightly more enlightened Manhattan wannabe was slight at best in the movie, and on stage it is positively anemic. Director/choreographer Arlene Phillips, who has helmed the London and New York productions as well, seems to view any scenes that don't involve high powered dancing as filler and thus treats them with the stage equivalent of a VCR's fast forward button. Subtlety and character development are nonexistent, and important plot points are zipped through at a breakneck pace. Was Tony's wannabe girlfriend, Annette, raped as she was in the movie? Could have fooled me, as she seemed to simply have a wedgie in that scene. I literally blinked and missed a character's suicide.

Which is a shame, since the cast seems more than capable of bringing richer dimension to the characters, if given half a chance. As the central character, Tony Manero, Richard H. Blake capably manages to evoke the swagger and charisma of Travolta's portrayal without being a clone of the original. Blessed with a triple threat of killer dance ability, a gorgeous voice and a body to die for, he did a more than admirable job of bringing the part to life, especially when one considers the poor dialogue and dramatically lifeless songs he had to work with. As his dance partner/paramour, Stephanie Mangano, Jeanine Meyers had the thankless task of playing a one-note bitch of a character, but managed to rise above the stereotypical bits of stage business thanks to sheer force of personality (being more than equal to her dance partner in terms of voice and moves did not hurt either). Blessed with better material and songs that at least propelled the action, Aileen Quinn (as the verging on pathetic wanna be trick of Tony's) and Jim Ambler (as the hardluck case, Bobby C) shone in their secondary parts. Further standouts include Danial Jerod Brown as Gus, who said little but never failed to capture the eye with his incredible dancing, and the competition couples Aubrey Smith and Stacey Martin, and Michael Balderrama and Natalie Willes, who were breathtaking in their numbers and gave the leads more than a run for their money.

Saturday Night Fever ran at The Paramount Theatre through April 8th before continuing on its tour. For more information visit www.theparamount.com




- Jonathan Frank



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