Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Metamorphoses and
King Hedley II

In the past week I saw two shows at The Seattle Repertory Theatre, two shows which could not have been more diverse in their subject matter, their presentation, and more importantly, their success.

The first of these shows, Metamorphoses, came to Seattle via Chicago and the Berkley Repertory Theatre. Based on Ovid's poems of the same name, Metamorphoses is not your typical theater piece, as it has no true narrative, story line or even story arc. It is a collection of stories, or rather poems, and thus takes us back to theater's roots, when people would act out stories about the gods or forces of nature while sitting around the campfire.

Orpheus (Erik Lochtefeld) laments the loss of his wife
Now this is not to be interpreted as a negative quality or a failing; quite the contrary, in fact. Writer and director Mary Zimmerman, last seen in Seattle with her hit The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, has woven a series of poems and stories based on David Slavitt's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses into ninety minutes of poetry, song, and dance which is by turns hysterical and touching. Many of the stories are familiar; King Midas, Orpheus, Cupid and Psyche. Some are ones that even I, who have been reading Greek Myths since early childhood, had never heard of; Myrrha's Aphrodite induced lust for her father, Erysichthon's curse of auto-cannibalism. These familiar and not-so-familiar myths of old are given a fresh, playful spin, such as updating King Midas into the ultimate high-powered businessman worth $100 billion (which is rather ironic, considering that the show is partly funded by Microsoft).

The visual focus of the show is a 24 foot square wading pool which comprises the set. Since the Rep's theater spaces do not provide sight lines conducive for the pool, the show has been mounted at The Intiman next door. The set design by Daniel Ostling is spare, comprised mainly of the pool, whose role is as fluid as its contents. One moment it's an angry sea; the next a reflecting pool for Narcissus, or a place to wash clothes or bodies, have sex, even lounge and contemplate life while talking to your therapist. The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are incredible. Not only are they gorgeous to look at, but they are durable enough to withstand the abuse heaped upon them by actors sliding, cavorting, and getting them utterly soaked. Considering that many of the costumes are made of rich brocades and velvets, she has done a marvelous job of finding a way not to sacrifice style for durability.

As befits its title Metamorphoses features a cast that plays a fluid, ever-changing collection of Gods, Heroes and Everymen (and women). Many of them have been with the show since its development at Northwestern University where Mary Zimmerman is an Assistant Professor, or its run at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. While some of the actors could be better storytellers, they are to a person incredibly gifted at transforming into the various characters and creating the proper moods. As it is an ensemble piece, and who plays what is largely unlisted, it is hard to single out actors for praise. Highlights, however, included Doug Hara, who is hysterical as the California-esque sun worshiping son of Apollo, who discusses his feelings of abandonment to his therapist while bobbing on a pool float. Anjali Bhimani was great as the daughter of Midas and the lust filled Myrrha, and Lisa Tejero was the strongest storyteller of the group, imparting every moment with honesty and intimacy.

Overall, Metamorphoses is an incredible evening of entertainment and storytelling. One word of warning, however: the show should have a notice that A) audience members need to dress coolly, as the temperature of the theater is kept high to keep the actors comfortable and B) sitting in the front row is a lot like sitting near the pool at Sea World.

Metamorphoses runs through March 26th at The Seattle Repertory Theatre after which it transfers to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

The second show I saw was the world premier of August Wilson's most recent play, King Hedley II. The Seattle Rep has had a long-standing relationship with August Wilson, having produced six of his eight plays chronicling the lives of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century. Having never seen an August Wilson show, I was eager to see a new work by a playwright I have heard nothing but praises about.

Unfortunately, King Hedley II needs a great deal of work before it can consider going to Broadway, or any other theatre for that matter. Simply put, King Hedley II seems to have been written by a writer who has fallen in love with his words to the point that he can not bear to edit a thing. Clocking in at an unbearable three and a half hours in length, the show is more about 'speechifying' than anything else. The characters are rarely active, but spend their time talking; talking about the past, talking about their hopes, talking about how life has screwed them over and how they are going to get out of the urban hell that is Pittsburgh in 1985. There were moments when I honestly wanted a lighted dial on my watch, so I could see if the monologues were truly as long as they felt!

Tony Todd and
Charles Brown
The main problem with the show is that King Hedley II has enough plot lines to make up three separate plays. The scarred King Hedley II (Tony Todd), who served seven years in jail for murdering his attacker, is trying to obtain a better life for his wife Tanya (Ella Joyce) and his unborn child. The only options open to him are selling hot refrigerators and robbing jewelry stores with his friend, Mister (Russell Andrews) who is convinced that there is a halo around his head. Meanwhile, Hedley's mother, Ruby (Marlene Warfield), is waiting for a check from her late sister's estate, and spends her time picking fights with the neighboring eccentric, Stool Pigeon (Mel Winkler) and flirting with her long time on-again/off-again beau, Elmore (Charles Brown). Ruby, Elmore and Stool Pigeon were in Wilson's earlier play, Seven Guitars, and unfortunately the climax of the King Hedley II is dependent upon the audience's knowledge of events that occurred in it. Thus the action of King Hedley II, what little there is, grinds to a screeching halt so Elmore can bring us up to speed, through what felt like a twenty minute speech, before the play is brought to an unsatisfying end.

By then, I had had my fill of speeches. Between Stool Pigeon's constant testifying to the awesome power of God (and using a certain two word phrase most commonly associated with gangsta rap ... to the point where one audience member on opening night shouted "Blasphemy!" and stormed out of the building), Elmore's long-winded accounts to Hedley and Mister about his exploits, philosophies on life and women, and everybody else's twenty minutes in the soliloquy sun, my eyes were starting to glaze at the merest suggestion of a speech. The only truthful and emotionally connected moments in the show were given by Tanya. Her soliloquies on what she needed from a husband (namely to stay in her life and not go to jail), and arguments on why she refuses to bring another child into the world elicited great cheers and applause from an audience that was nodding off.

Going to see a World Premier of any play is a risk, as you are seeing something largely untried. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this one, but due to the fact that it had already gone through a staged reading in Seattle and a workshop in Pittsburgh, I thought it would have been further along in its development. King Hedley II has some brilliant writing and some moments that represent theater at its finest. But unfortunately, at present they are overwhelmed by a cacophony of speeches and mired by a convoluted plot. My date for the evening remarked that perhaps August Wilson has reached the point of genius where nobody says 'no' or offers truthful feedback. That may be so, but I am hoping he finds a way to streamline King Hedley II, as there is a wonderful play buried in there.

King Hedley II runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through April 8th. For tickets or information on either show, visit their website at or call the box office at (206) 443-2222.

- Jonathan Frank

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