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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Sideways Stories from the Wayside School and
Big Love

They say that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. However, I believe that to attempt the truly insanely difficult, try and create a show designated as "children's theatre" which manages to be accessible and entertaining to both adults and its intended audience. For twenty-six seasons the Seattle Children's Theatre has consistently been delivering shows which are geared towards children without catering or stooping to a supposed 'childish' level of what said audience will accept, all the while managing to present entertainment which older chaperones will enjoy as well. Their latest work, the world premier of Sideways Stories from the Wayside School upholds this tradition by being entertaining for the intended audience, namely young theater-goers, as well as being engaging to those who brought them to the show.

Based on a popular series of children's books by Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories from Wayside School brings to life an elementary school thirty stories high (the architect accidentally built a school containing thirty classrooms stacked one upon the other instead of one containing thirty classrooms on ground level. He did say he was sorry, so ... ) where the oddest things can happen. Wicked teachers turn students to apples. Tornado drills are the norm (for good reason). Public address systems sprout mouths and tongues and warn of wandering cows. Missing floors and mythical teachers turn out to be real (and intriguingly intertwined). Basically, the stories resemble Roald Dahl/Dr. Seuss-lite; most of the whimsy with a lessor portion of darkness and warped viewpoints. The traumas and dramas are more earthbound (not being able to count correctly, the horrors of having pigtails that literally scream to be pulled, and evil substitute teachers being chief among them), but nonetheless are entertaining and engaging.

Sideways Stories from the Wayside School
Katie Forgette, Kimber Lee, Jason Collins,
Lisa Strum and Michael Black.

A great deal of that is due to a stellar adaptation by John Olive which perfectly captures the fantastical aspects of the material while turning the highly episodic events of the books into a moderately through-line driven drama. Olive also manages the difficult feat of providing backstory without resorting to boring narrative, thus acquainting those of us unfamiliar with the Wayside School with the weird world it inhabits. The cast is excellent and appears to be having a great time. Special mention must be made of Marianne Owen who plays a myriad of characters, from the wicked Mrs. Gorf to the whimsical tango instructor Miss. Valoosh, with a great sense of fun. The post-show question/answer period was engaging and proved how astute and receptive the young audience was to the show. The set by Edie Whitsett is phenomenal and is everything the Seussical set failed to achieve on Broadway. Consisting of bright colors and not a single right angle, it provides the perfect off-kilter world for the show, as well as many delightful discoveries to occupy pre-show and intermission conversations with the children you take to the show.

I borrowed a six year old named Casey from my neighbor to be my theater-going companion and he thoroughly enjoyed it. The highest praise one can give to any theatrical event, be it geared toward any age, is that it managed to keep both of us entertained and squirm-free throughout the entire production. Casey especially loved the one moment I thought might be too intense for some children, when the set turns into the mysterious Mrs. Zarves, the 'nonexistent' inhabitant of the missing 19th floor. Overall, the show is highly entertaining and a great way to introduce young potential theater devotees to the magic that is the theater.

Sideways Stories from the Wayside School runs through June 10th at Seattle Children's Theatre. For more information, visit their website, www.sct.org.

OK, I have to admit it; I was a little scared upon opening the press pack for Big Love, which opens the 2001 season at ACT. While the premise of the play sounded entertaining, a retelling of Aeschylus' The Suppliants by Charles L. Mee, the article included with the press kit by Matthew Wilder made it sound, well, more than a little scary. I'm sorry, but when an article manages to compare the playwright to William Gibson, Eugene O'Neill, Burroughs, Kurt Cobain and Quentin Tarantino all in the first paragraph, little warning bells start going off in my head to fasten your seatbelts, you may be in for an evening of Theater of Pretension. The warning bells got louder when I noticed that one of the actors was in last year's ultra pretentious disaster, In the Penal Colony. The tension was mounting, my nerves were all a-jangle. What, oh what was I in for?

Why, oh, why was I worried? Oh, I admit that the feelings did not dissipate immediately upon the start of the show (in which Hope Chernov as one of the brides, Lydia, peels off her wedding dress to take an on stage skinny dip). But when her two sisters slid down the padded Experience Music Project inspired set, then opened their bridal trunks, donned safety goggles and gloves and proceeded to throw their wedding china against a Plexiglas batting cage to the tune of "You Don't Own Me," well, trepidation flew out the window and enjoyment took its place.

Big Love
C.J. Wilson, Jeremy Shaw, Michael Bakkensen
The play, like the original drama by Aeschylus, deals with fifty brides who have been promised to fifty bridegrooms against their will. Since no nation will grant them asylum, they literally take matters into their own hands by murdering their intendeds on their wedding day. Unlike far too many message or director driven shows that I have seen recently, Big Love doesn't take itself too seriously, and manages to tackle heavy issues, such as sexism, gender roles, pursuit of justice and murder with more than a modicum of humor. Also, Charles L. Mee has done a masterful job of injecting three-dimensional humanity into characters that in lesser hands could be rendered as stereotypes. Thus, while one of the sisters, Olympia (played by Kristen Potter) may be a ditz seeking a submissive relationship, she also makes some perceptive insights into the human condition. Thyona (Danielle Skraastad) may be a literal ball-buster of an ultra-feminist, but she is also a realist in the 'give them an inch' school of life. Constantine (C.J. Wilson) may be the villain of the piece and Thyona's masculinist counterpart, but also raises valid points on the role testosterone plays in warfare (and by extension pro Football) through a wonderfully written and highly disturbing monologue on the male dilemma; mainly how to turn off the violent urges when they are no longer needed or appreciated.

The majority of the cast is equally strong and capable of meeting the show's demands to mix equal parts humor, drama, and absurdity into their parts. Judith Roberts is a hoot in both of her parts: the ultra Italian little old grandmother, Bella, who dissects her family verbally while physically doing so with a dozen tomatoes, and Eleanor, an American socialite who is a fusion of Katherine Hepburn and Carol Channing with a free-love mindset. Jose J. Gonzales shows a flair for comedy, as well as song, as the gay grandson of Bella's, Giuliano.

While the show peters out a bit towards the end, with an odd verbal tennis match between Giuliano and Bella a bit reminiscent of the war of words between Merlin and Madam Mim (but making half as much sense), for most of the time Big Love is a highly enjoyable and thought provoking take on the world's oldest war; the battle of the sexes. An archive of Mee's plays is available at www.panix.com/~meejr, as he highly encourages the free dissemination of his works.

Big Love runs at ACT through May 20th. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.


Photos: Chris Benion




- Jonathan Frank



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