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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


Jitney, The Flying Karamazov Brothers'Catch!
and Fully Committed

Direct from London, where it has been nominated for the Olivier Award for Best New Play, August Wilson's first play, Jitney, has taken up residence at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Written in 1977 and revised by Wilson in 1995, Jitney depicts a group of men working as unlicensed cab drivers in Pittsburgh's Hill District, all of whom are slaves in some manner to their pasts. The youngest of the group, Youngblood (Russell Andres), is a Vietnam Vet clinging to old ways and refusing to acknowledge the changes that occur when one allows others into one's life, namely his girlfriend, Rena (Yvette Ganier), and their toddler son. Turnbo (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a meddling sanctimonious gossip who has his nose in everybody's business and is obsessed with everybody's past. Doub (Barry Shabaka Henley), can't shake the memory of his years in Korea and Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), drowns his past and memories with booze.

Jitney
Roger Robinson and Randolph Smith
The owner of the cab, or jitney, station is Becker (Bellevue, Washington native Roger Robinson), a powerful man who has lost his sense of direction and spark of existence, largely due to the actions of his son, Booster (Keith Randolph Smith) who is serving twenty years in prison for cold-blooded murder. When Booster is released, the two clash in a horrible war of words that leaves one leaving for intermission wondering how the show can top itself, much less get any better and hard-hitting.

But somehow it does, largely due to a tight ensemble that makes every word and moment come to life with a rich vitality. Unlike Wilson's later plays, chiefly the recent King Hedley II, Jitney displays a lightness of tone, striking a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, the former necessary to give the latter added depth. The characters are the most 'real' and human of any show in recent memory, as none are perfect but all are enjoyable and understandable in their drives and fears.

Robinson gives an incredible performance as Becker, avoiding the trap of making the character either larger or smaller than necessary, thus making him all the more human and empathetic. Smith's portrayal of Booster is a pressure cooker of rage and longing. Chisholm (who can be seen Sunday nights on HBO in Oz) avoids all the easy clichés of a broken down drunk, endowing his character with a gentle mix of gravity and humor. Henderson is the character you love to hate (or hate to love) as the short-fused meddler who is always up to some crafty trick or another. Gainer and Andrews give tender performances as lovers at the crossroads, and Henley gives his low-key character the steel backbone of a natural peacemaker. In supporting roles, Leo V. Finnie III is great as a regular customer and Willis Burks II shines as the friendly neighborhood bookie.

Marion McClinton's direction is seamless and flawless. David Gallo's set, depicting a crumbling locale undergoing 'urban renewal' to destructive effect, is a character unto itself, augmented by Donald Holder's subtle lighting and Susan Hilferty's unobtrusive costumes.

Jitney runs through February 23 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information visit www.seattlerep.org

The last time The Flying Karamazov Brothers were at A Contemporary Theatre, it was with L'Universe, an evening chock full of high-tech gadgets and multi-media moments. Their current show, Catch!, represents a return to their roots in a decidedly low tech but highly enjoyable fashion.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers

For those unfamiliar with The Flying Karamazov Brothers, they are a troupe of four performers who have been delighting audiences around the world for almost three decades. Two of the original members remain, the Groucho-esque Dmitri Karamazov (Paul Magid) and wickedly low-keyed Ivan Karamazov (Howard Jay Patterson), and are joined by two newer siblings, Alexei Karamazov (Mark Ettinger) and Pavel Karamazov (Roderick Kimball).

The show has no real book or plot. While a Twilight Zone inspired ongoing bit (in which the four Flying K's are shown decade by decade trying to discover an impossible juggling feat) provides a through-line, it is mainly an excuse to showcase their spectacular juggling skills and impart a few lessons on the craft. Catch! is almost a 'best of' show as it combines elements and routines taken from previous shows, both in 'legitimate spaces and on the streets of Haight Ashbury and the campuses of the University of Washington.

If you are pun-phobic, be warned: the bad jokes and puns fly almost as fast and as furious as the clubs, for the K's juggle words as rapidly and as unerringly as they do anything else. In one of their more inspired bits, two of the Karamazovs act out the 'question tennis match' scene from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!, passing off the juggling balls as they volley questions back and forth. Other highlights include a low-budget Japanese drumming segment (using and abusing cardboard boxes instead of drums) and a Polish-Appalachian clog-dancing routine (as bizarre as it sounds, and no, it has nothing to do with juggling, but it was truly hysterical).

The piece de resistance is the ever-popular "Challenge Segment," in which audience members bring items for the Champ (Patterson) to juggle. The items have to weigh between an ounce and 10 pounds, be no bigger than a breadbox, and cannot be living (or be something that would stop the Champ from remaining in that state). The night I went the items were a carton containing 5 eggs, a slinky, and a chain and padlock (I hear the night before the Champ had to juggle a dead octopus).

Catch! is a wonderfully wacky evening and runs through February 17th at A Contemporary Theatre. For more information visit www.acttheatre.org.

Just down the hall at ACT in the Bullitt Space, R. Hamilton Wright is channeling over 30 people in the hilarious one-person show, Fully Committed by Becky Mode. R. Hamilton plays Sam, a struggling actor who toils as the reservations clerk in the basement of a trendy New York restaurant, whose mantra is "I'm sorry; we're fully committed for that evening." He also plays all the people Sam comes into contact with, be they co-workers (the uber-Gallic maitre'd, Jean-Claude and the arrogant, nameless Chef), people calling for reservations (most memorable being the demented Mrs. Sebag, who after being told there is no reservation on record, lets out a scream worthy of Edvard Munch), family members and rival actors.

Fully Committed

The plot is slight, largely concerning itself with the trials and tribulations of the world of haute cuisine and containing a bit of family drama tossed in for spice. It merely acts as a demi-glace for the meat of the show, which are the lighting quick character transformations. For the most part, R. Hamilton handles the split second transitions and multiple character madness hysterically and ably. He's wonderful as Bryce, the oh-so-strident-and-queeney assistant to supermodel Naomi Campbell (whose ever changing demands encompass all-vegan tasting menus and softer halogen bulbs in the sconces). He also nails the society matron Carol-Ann Rosenstein Fishburne, whose lack of success in connecting with Jean-Claude makes her decide to "Stay on hold forever!" Having seen Fully Committed in San Francisco, I have to admit that Hamilton does not have the manic tempo or drive I came to expect (and, indeed, is several decades older than the description of the character in the script). The pace, I'm sure, will tighten and improve as he gets used to the part, and the age discrepancy will only bother those already familiar with the show.

Fully Committed runs through February 24th at ACT. For more information visit www.acttheatre.org.


Photos: Chris Bennion




- Jonathan Frank



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