Two new plays by women, WET’s “The Tall Girls” and Keiko Green’s “Bunnies,” hit the stage with basketball heroes and rabbit villains.
Eager girl basketball players and vicious bunnies figure in two new theater attractions by women writers:
“The Tall Girls” (Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts)
In much of small-town America, high-school basketball isn’t just another sport. It is a major source of local pride, and practically a religion.
In “The Tall Girls,” playwright Meg Miroshnik reminds us that girls didn’t always get to achieve glory on the court — even when they desperately wanted and needed to.
‘The Tall Girls’
By Meg Miroshnik. Through May 18, Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25 (206-325-5105 or washingtonensemble.org)
By Keiko Green. Through May 16, Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle; $5-$20 (206-728-0933 or annextheatre.org).
Washington Ensemble Theatre’s local debut of “The Tall Girls” unfolds thoughtfully if not always smoothly, as a tale of team spirit both conventional and revisionist. It’s understandably a bleaker, less zany work than Miroshnik’s wildly imaginative “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls,” staged by WET in 2012.
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Arriving in the grim Midwest outpost of Poor Prairie in the 1930s, 15-year-old Jean (Leah Salcido Pfenning) looks lost and terrified. Clad in a baggy “traveling suit,” she’s been sent to this “grave town” to live with relatives, for reasons revealed later.
On Cameron Irwin’s sepia-toned set, dust coats the ground, backdrop and idle farm implements, a classic image of Depression-era hard times. But a hint of romance and “Field of Dreams” mysticism emerges in the form of the handsome, enigmatic Haunt Johnny. He carries a round bundle and harbors his own hard-luck secrets.
Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir doesn’t look “much, much older” than Jean, as the script indicates. But his Johnny is mature and appealing, as he teases and flirts, waxing folksy-poetic about his hometown return.
The mood switches when Jean is tossed into a circle of rude, lanky girls eager to form a winning basketball team and get out of Podunk. Pfenning’s Jean has a range of expressions, from fearful to exhilarated. In more stock roles, Hannah Ruwe as the boy-crazy kid, Adria LaMorticella as the goody-good rich girl and Bailie Breaux as the noisy, begrimed tomboy need more shading, less shrill volume.
Magic happens when, under Kelly Kitchens’ direction, the girls coalesce into a real team. Coached by Johnny, they hit the court and if not quite Seattle Storm material, the actors really score their slam-dunks.
However, the team’s triumph is short-lived thanks to the harsh gender and economic realities of the time. Athletic ambition is also thwarted by a national committee headed by Lou Henry Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, which supposedly denounces basketball as an unhealthful, immodest pastime for females.
This fits neatly into the play’s gender agenda. But Mrs. Hoover, a noted scholar and linguist, was actually a leading advocate of sports and fitness for young women. That “Tall Girls” suggests otherwise is puzzling.
“Bunnies” (Annex Theatre)
Just when you think you’ve nailed down the tone of local playwright Keiko Green’s fractured fairy-tale musical “Bunnies,” it takes a sharp left turn, hopping from baroque mythologizing to broad satire to shock-powered black comedy. It’s not quite Beatrix Potter on acid, but Green and director Pamala Mijatov’s stark vision of corrupted innocence is rarely less than intriguing
On the outskirts of Seattle’s Woodland Park, a frightened pet rabbit, Parsley (Pilar O’Connell), is abandoned by her owner, a distraught little boy named Tim (Andrew Shanks), forced to give up his beloved friend by an uncaring dad (André Nelson, as one of several malignant authority figures in “Bunnies”).
Decades later, Tim is a parks employee tasked with solving the mounting infestation of deserted rabbits. Little does he know the bunnies have developed a taste for blood and formed an elaborate religious cult, with Parsley’s descendant Lola (O’Connell) and usurper John Wayne (Kayla Walker) vying for control.
The script’s mimic of the Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” can be tiresome, as the bunnies are prone to pontificate and soliloquize at length, but the show’s alluring sense of the macabre snaps sharply into focus during playwright Green and composer Jesse Smith’s perfectly cast musical numbers, gothic siren songs with hypnotic chants and clarion harmonies.
Among the warren, Sara Porkalob impresses as the pregnant Dandelion, who goes to extreme measures to protect the virtue of her litter. And though Libby Barnard’s Angela seems transplanted from another play, she’s hilarious as her manic animal love turns to terror when the true nature of those fuzzy-wuzzy bunnies is revealed.