Three critics, dozens of plays and a fistful of trends. The Seattle Times looks at Seattle theater’s 2017 in review. (And did someone mention “Hamilton” — like, 5,000 times?)
Plays written in reaction to, or sharpened by, the inauguration of the Trump presidency; shows that brought down the house; theater companies and people who departed — 2017 was eventful for the local theater scene.
The Footlight Awards, begun some 20 years ago by former Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson, have served as a quick-hit, annual almanac of ups, downs and zigzags in Seattle performance over the previous year. Here’s how three of our critics — Seattle Times arts writer Brendan Kiley, and freelance writers Berson and Dusty Somers — remember 2017 onstage.
Political theater: The specter of national politics haunted Seattle stages this year. Some shows were direct, hastily organized responses to rhetoric or policies from President Donald Trump’s administration. Others were unintentionally sharpened, on what seemed like an hourly basis, by the latest headlines. A few examples: “Three Americans” (monologues about who “belongs” in the U.S. by Yussef El Guindi, Regina Taylor and Mashuq Mushtaq Deen) at West of Lenin; “Building the Wall” (Robert Schenkkan’s near-future, deportation-dystopia scenario) by Azeotrope; and “Welcome to Braggsville,” a funny and harrowing adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel that examines sometimes-callow college kids playing with the fire of U.S. race politics, by Book-It Repertory Theatre.
“Hamilton” times infinity: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about every high schooler’s new favorite Secretary of the Treasury doesn’t even get here until February, but people couldn’t stop talking about who got tickets, what they cost on primary and resale markets, how schools will capitalize on the improbable phenomenon of 18th-century history being a runaway fad — ad infinitum, ad nauseam or ad libitum, depending on your “Hamilton” threshold. Stay tuned for more!
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Relief at Re-bar: Seattle theater-maker Ian Bell has affectionately described Re-bar as “a theater squatting at a disco, held together with duct tape and eyelash glue from drag queens.” When audiences’ Facebook feeds about the latest crises became too much this year, they could still occasionally escape to Re-bar’s metal folding chairs for a few delightfully bizarre, slightly mad evenings with Ms. Pak-Man (Scott Shoemaker) and Dina Martina (Grady West). As always, the place smelled like booze, the jokes were lewdly surreal and everybody was there to forget about the rest of the world for a blessed hour or two.
Fond farewells: Like every year, 2017 brought a few final goodbyes. Among them: New Century Theatre Company ended its 10-year run of strongly performed and designed shows in theaters around the city (see Dusty Somers’ note below) and Smash Putt turned off the lights in its indoor-golf-meets-nightclub-meets-performance-art social experiment. Longtime actor/writer/director/all-around instigator Marya Sea Kaminski announced she’s leaving Seattle Repertory Theatre to run Pittsburgh Public Theater; 5th Avenue leader David Armstrong said he’d step down after 18 years to work on his own projects. And the magnetic, mercurial actor G. Valmont Thomas — who brought power and energy to a huge range of stage performances, from theater classics to rock bands — passed away on Dec. 18 at the age of 58. Thomas had been diagnosed with cancer in 2013. His final performance was July 8, 2017, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he played Falstaff back to back in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” parts one and two. Goodnight, G. Val.
Noteworthy trend: More African-American talent was on display this season in some of the year’s best productions, including Book-It Repertory Theatre’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Intiman Theatre’s “Barbecue,” 5th Avenue Theatre’s “Ragtime,” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” (The Williams Project).
Gems from the road: A banner year for national touring shows stopping here, with Broadway faves “Fun Home” (5th Avenue Theatre), and Seattle Theatre Group’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” “An American in Paris,” and National Theatre of Scotland’s uber-eerie “Let the Right One In” leading the pack.
Actor bringing it: Nike Imoru’s classical chops and sizzling charisma lit up “Bring Down the House” (Seattle Shakespeare Company), “Coriolanus” (Rebel Kat Productions) and Imoru’s searing autobiographical solo show “Ode.”
Family feuds: Revealing slices of life among relations, in culturally diverse families, hit home in Latino Theatre Project’s “26 Miles” by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What” (ArtsWest), “Dragon Lady” by Sara Porkalob (Intiman), Lauren Yee’s flawed but intriguing “King of the Yees” at ACT, and the explosively poetic Octavio Solis drama “Lydia” (Strawberry Theatre Workshop).
Family fun: Seattle Children’s Theatre gifted young audiences with the delightful show-and-tell romps “Mr. Popper’s Penguins;” “Fire Station 7;” and “Seedfolks,” a flourishing tale of community gardening. And the funny bones of older youths, and adults, were tickled by “Something Rotten!” and “The Pajama Game” (both at 5th Avenue), and Seattle Shakespeare’s riotous “The Government Inspector.”
Eddie DeHais and Alyza DelPan-Monley: Proving that small budgets don’t have to preclude wild fits of imagination, director DeHais and choreographer DelPan-Monley livened fringe stages all over, making nightmares menacingly tactile in Annex’s “Scary Mary” and undersea movement elegant and frenetic in dance/performance hybrid “Into the Deeps.” Book-It Repertory Theatre tapped Table Flip, their movement team with Ryan Higgins, to inject new musical “Howl’s Moving Castle” with a touch of magic, and DelPan-Monley physicalized the digital with her choreography for WET’s “Teh Internet is Serious Business.”
“Coriolanus: Fight Like a Bitch”: Far from gimmicky, this all-female production of an infrequently produced Shakespeare play was directed with cool precision by Emily Penick. In the lead role, a swaggering Nike Imoru could’ve carried the whole thing single-handedly, but the sharp supporting cast included a subtly conniving Wendy Robie and a harried Kate Witt as a lone beacon of sanity in a world gone mad.
Theatre22: One of the most thoughtfully programmed companies in the city had another excellent year providing substantial roles for actors, and the actors delivered, including Christine Marie Brown and Brandon Ryan as shellshocked siblings in “Downstairs” and Carolyn Marie Monroe and Tim Gouran as grief-stricken, tentative lovers in “Burn This.”
“Newsies”: In a year when many of the best musicals were national tours (“Fun Home” at the 5th Avenue Theatre) or populated with out-of-town talent (Seattle Rep’s flawed but satisfyingly ambitious “Here Lies Love”), Village Theatre’s “Newsies” showcased an ensemble of mostly local up-and-comers dancing their hearts out in an ecstatic flurry of handsprings, tumbles, turns and taps.
“The Realistic Joneses”: Will Eno’s defiantly aloof and resolutely minor “The Realistic Joneses” wasn’t nearly the best show ever produced by New Century Theatre Company. But now that we know it’s the company’s final production, it seems imperative to celebrate the dearly departed, and Andrea Bryn Bush’s intricate scenic miniatures and the delicately arranged performances from Sunam Ellis, Brenda Joyner, Peter Dylan O’Connor and Evan Whitfield were emblematic of the company’s consistent strengths. New Century, you’ll be missed.