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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Charlotte's Web, The Wrestling Season and Valley of the Dolls

I doubt that one could find two more diverse shows than those currently playing at The Seattle Children's Theatre. One, The Wrestling Season, is a hard-hitting, serious drama that sets intense high-school issues in the arena of wresting. The other, a stage version of the children's classic novel, Charlotte's Web, is more traditional children's theatre fare: a fable featuring animals that teach lessons on life, prejudice and death.

Unless you have been under a rock for the past fifty years, you must be at least marginally familiar with E.B. White's classic children's book Charlotte's Web,, which is described by its author as being "a story of friendship and salvation on a farm." In Charlotte's Web (the bestselling children's paperback of all time, by the way), a spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica becomes friends with a runty pig named Wilbur and, through her machinations and inspired web-weaving, manages to save him from becoming a breakfast side dish. The story is based on White's observations as a gentleman farmer in Maine. A few years before he wrote Charlotte's Web, White wrote an essay about a pig on his farm; a swine destined for bacon but whose life White valiantly tried to save when it became ill. Out of this, and his observations of a grey spider's weaving skills, a classic tale dealing with the ever-changing circle of life (decades before Disney's The Lion King) and its cycle of birth, decline, death and rebirth was born.

The stage version, as adapted by Joseph Robinette, retains the magic and power of the novel. As realized by set designer Edie Whitsett, the show has a simple, folksy feel, which is further augmented by the Appalachian inspired incidental music. The show truly comes to visual life through Catherine Meacham Hunt's brilliant costume designs, which clothe the farm Charlotte's Webanimals as if they were characters from a Hollywood silent movie. This greatly adds to the fantasy aspect of the characters and grounds them in a specific visual reality. Thus, Charlotte (powerfully played by Leslie Law, picture at right) becomes a vamp (as befits a blood sucker) in yards of spangley black tulle. The Old Sheep (Kymberli Colbourne) becomes a Norma Desmond-esque flapper, who in a brilliant touch is constantly knitting from her own wool. Wilbur (a very touching Alban Dennis) is decked out in Fatty Arbuckle/Spanky outfits and the rat, Templeton (slyly played by Todd Jefferson Moore, who is channeling more than a little of Paul Lynde's performance from the Paramount animated movie version) is decked out as Chaplin's tramp.

David Saar's direction is subtle and non-intrusive, and he does a wonderful job of alternating between the humor and the quiet tragedy of the piece. The best testimonial I can give is that the play provoked the same reaction in me as the book (yeah, I'm a softy; but I challenge anyone to read the pages dealing with Charlotte's quiet and overlooked demise and not get teary).

Charlotte's Web runs through March 30th at (appropriately enough) Seattle Children's Theatre's Charlotte Martin Theatre. For more information visit www.sct.org

While Charlotte's Web is the type of show one usually associates with children's theatre, across the hall at SCT's Eve Alvord space is a completely different theatrical animal. Status games, sexual and physical assault, homosexuality, and the struggles of social and personal acceptance are not the normal fare of children's theater. However, the battles of the barnyard are nothing compared to the all out warfare that exists in high school, where verbal weapons can be more destructive than physical ones, as illustrated in Laurie Brooks' hard-hitting The Wrestling Season.

Originally commissioned and produced by The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri (with workshop assistance from the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts), The Wrestling Season uses wrestling as a metaphor for the battles of high school. Set on a spare set that contains little more than a wrestling mat, the characters (all dressed in identical navy spandex wresting uniforms) wrestle verbally and physically for dominance over the others and themselves. The action is presided by a Referee (M.L. Berry) who interjects the action with wrestling calls.

The weapons of choice for this match are the deadly combo of rumors and labels. Two wrestlers, Jolt (Darragh Kennan) and Willy (Daniel Harray), spread the rumor that their main rivals Luke (Tim Gouran) and Matt (Leigh Miller, who also choreographed the wrestling moves) have a relationship that goes beyond friendship. On the advice of Kori (Deanna Companion), Matt chooses to diffuse the rumors by dating the girl purported to be the easiest girl in school, Melanie "Cherry" Garcia (Jennifer Lee Taylor). Melanie, in turn, makes the mistake of confiding in the biggest rumormonger in the school, Heather (Betsy Schwartz), who trades knowledge for social power and acceptance, especially with her always-wanting-to-pin boyfriend, Jolt. The wrestling match between Melanie and Matt turns violent, as does the wresting Luke does with his own demons.

The Wrestling Season
Leigh Miller, M.L. Berry and Jennifer Lee Taylor

The play, mirroring reality, provides no pat answers or easy resolutions. Throughout the play, the line "You think you know me. But you don't" becomes the mantra for each of the characters, whose true feelings and history largely remains an unsketched mystery. This lack of resolution is The Wrestling Season's genius and partial failure. The fact that the issues are not completely and clearly spelled out forces one to bring his or her own experiences into the play and project them onto the characters. While this makes for a highly personal theatrical experience, it also means that one largely gets out of the play what one puts into it. Thus, those who probably need to hear its message of the dangers of labeling and what constitutes acceptable social behavior the most probably won't be on the receiving end of it. (The two teenage boys sitting next to me, for example, were more concerned with the truthfulness of the wrestling holds than anything else).

However, the forum after the play helps nail the lessons home. The writer has included a post-show discussion in which the actors remain in character while the Referee asks the audience to answer questions and provide feedback to the characters on what they have seen. The results are more than a little surprising, and it is amazing how deeply the play hits audience members, many of whom are visibly shaken by what they had witnessed. It is hard to tell how the show's intended audience feels about The Wrestling Seasonc since responses were provided solely by the adults in the audience during the Sunday matinee that I attended. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at one of SCT's school matinees, however and witness their reactions.

The acting by the cast and the direction by Jeff Church are spot on and never fall into clichéd Movie Of The Week territory. The Wrestling Season is recommended for ages 12 and up for its frank depiction of high school situations and conversation and runs at SCT through February 16th. For more information visit www.sct.org.

Life lessons of a completely different kind are on display at Broadway Performance Hall where Empty Space Theatre is recreating the camp classic film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's bestseller, Valley Of The Dolls.

Adapted for the stage by Jason Cannon, Burton Curtis and Allison Narver (the latter two also serving as co-directors), Valley Of The Dolls is a scene-by-scene recreation of the 1967 film version of Susann's melodramatic novel with mixed success.

Valley Of The Dolls details the life journeys of three friends who each resort to 'dolls' (aka: pills) to deal with their successes and failures in life. Naïve New Enlander Anne Wells (played on film by Barbara Parkins and on stage by Nick Garrison) goes to New York to discover life, and in the process meets rising star Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke/Sarah Harlett) and vapid chorus girl Jennifer North (Sharon Tate/Michelle Lewis). Each girl tries to make it in the cold, cruel biz that is show, and find true happiness. Unfortunately, what they find instead is alcoholism, wild sexcapades, misbehaving husbands, roles in French 'art' films, suicide, marital woes, and, of course, their 'dolls.'

The problem with this stage adaptation is two fold. First of all, one really needs to have seen the movie in order to appreciate, and often times even understand, what is going on as the humor is largely dependent on how well one can appreciate the spoofs and homages. Secondly, the show has not quite decided what it wants to be, a parody or recreation, and thus does not have the 'sparkle' (Neely, Sparkle!) or the bite that it should.

The show is further hampered by a conceit that is not followed through, nor is it needed. It opens with Nick (Nick Garrison) watching the film version on TV with his mom. Nick soon pulls a Judy and Micky and puts on his own version of the show, cast from his childhood friends. This conceit is pretty much dropped along the way, except for ever-decreasing asides by Nick (as Anne Wells) concerning the dishy backstory of the movie. Garrison makes a great Anne Wells/Barbara Parkins, recreating her "unplaceable mid-Atlantic accent" and over-earnest line delivery, and the concept is an unnecessary excuse to have him do the role.

The rest of the cast is inconsistent in regard to tone and how the show should be treated, with half working hard, like Nick, to at least minimally recreate their movie counterparts, while others are in worlds of their own. Suzanne Bouchard, for example, is absolutely terrific, perfectly recreating Lee Grant's chilly portrayal of Mirriam Polar, the controlling sister of lounge singer Tony Scotti (married to the vapid Jennifer North). She also glams it up in leopard skin as the Ethel Merman inspired Helen Lawson (and gets to utter the immortal line, "They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope.") Sarah Hartlet is hysterical as Neely O'Hara and perfectly finds the balance between loving recreation and out-and-out spoof.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is less able to tread that line. John Kaufmann plays lounge singer extraordinaire Tony Polar as Jerry Lewis rather than Dean Martin. Michelle Lewis nails the vapid quality of Jennifer North (her response of "telephone" whenever said instrument rings being perfectly dead on) but brings little else to the mix.

The result is an overly long, intermittently funny show that is equal parts parody, Rocky Horror commentary and serious recreation. While there are some genuinely hysterical moments (the recreation of Neely's big debut number, "It's Impossible," complete with jerky go-go dancing and Burke's (Kelly Boulware) filing cabinet residing in his fly being among them) they are offset by too many overly faithful recreations of scenes with no skew or commentary. [Note: Valley Of The Dolls is definitely a show that is best enjoyed as part of a group, as audience reactions are necessary to fuel the comic machinery in many cases.]

Valley Of The Dolls runs at the Broadway Performance Hall through February 9th. For more information visit www.emptyspace.org.


Photos: Chris Bennion




- Jonathan Frank



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