Northwest Theatre Workshop is playing the long game.
For Fertile Ground 2015, the Cantilever Project presented a staged reading of four plays at Blackfish Gallery: NWTW founder Cigi Guerin’s Noisemaker, Wayne Harrel’s since-retitled Jaffa Gate, George Taylor’s Renaissance, and Vivien Lyon’s Nobody’s Business. I reviewed them, noting that Jaffa Gate‘s original name (a Latin word that choir nerds like me may know) actually gave away Harrel’s ending before the show even began! I didn’t expect him to necessarily even read, let alone take, that note, but apparently he did as NWTW continued to refine two of the Cantilever scripts, Guerin’s and Harrel’s, for a full staging.
Now, two years later, Jaffa Gate and Noisemaker are blazing through a three-week world premiere run, packing in seven more performances in rotation at Shaking The Tree’s theater space between now and Saturday, partnering with nearby businesses to offer discounts and even some free tickets. At his curtain speeches, Harrel admits that NWTW are eager to share their progress toward establishing a full-fledged theater company. They want an audience. They want reviews. Buoyed by a cast and crew who already give a lot to our theater community (one is PATA’s president, and most have a long list of small local companies they’ve worked with), these shows are finishing their incubation in the spotlight. So how far along are they?
Jaffa Gate could be summarized as a theatrical overview of the overlaps in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Scholars are already aware that these religions’ sacred texts may as well have been written on triplicate carbon forms, but this narrative makes that all the more explicit—sometimes even deploying an echo effect as three characters utter their faiths’ variations of the same word. For instance, when Christian character Oliver Dodd (Johnny Rice) refers to “David,” his cohorts, the Turkish Muslim Rachma Chol (Dré Slaman) and the Dutch Jewish Miriam Abravanel (Sofia May-Cuxim) immediately mutter their faiths’ variations, respectively “Davud” and “DavEED.” This “you say tomato” religious repartee shapes the course of events through a tense situation, as these three have been captured at the border of the titular Jaffa Gate by Circassian—aka, Black Sea Russian—mercenary tribal leader Nash Abu Ghosh (Andy Haftkowycz).
Talk about ambitious! Between triple research of world religions and regional strife and the proposition of life-or-death stakes, Harrel’s script goes wide. Hence, to hold together, its execution must be incredibly tight. On opening week at least, it was still getting there.
For one thing, the play’s three dialects are not equally decipherable. May-Cuxim and Slaman nail theirs, but Haftkowycz has yet to find the sweet spot between applying the appropriate phonetics and making sure his every word still reaches his listeners. Another uncanny problem is that Harrel’s stage directions as writ and read out loud seemed to deliver clearer symbolic meanings than they do now that they’re being performed. That might not be the case once the blocking is razor-sharp, but early in the run at least, it was still a bit soft. It’s complicated in part because the characters aren’t always themselves. As ancient texts are retold in story form, the characters who aren’t currently storytelling pantomime the story. Slaman, for instance, plays Bathsheba to Rice’s David and The Beloved to Haftkowycz’s Solomon. Those switches, past a point, get hard to keep straight. Furthermore, with Haftkowycz doing double duty as actor and fight choreographer and four more production team members also credited with weighing in on movement, it may be a too-many-cooks situation in that department. Meanwhile, actors evidently handled their own dialects (or at least there’s no credit to the contrary). Maybe the next time Jaffa Gate is produced, it will be with a bigger budget to hire one outside fight choreographer and one expert dialect coach to perfect each of those sectors.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the show also requires customized ethnic costumes, and a working onstage slide projector and phonograph. Graduating University of Portland senior Michael Wardrop covers the former—quite admirably for his first try at costuming a play. The phonograph also seems to work fine. But the projector is apparently hit-or-miss, forcing actors and audience to imagine the Sistine Chapel paintings that should actually be conjured before them in the flick of a switch. Hopefully it’s working for this final run.
The only remaining (but extremely important!) loose end to tie down is the outcome—particularly, its believability. To summarize without spoiling, the show closes on repentance and redemption, yet we leave with a less-than-clear picture of how this serves the characters’ conflicting motivations. That condition makes a play that would be scholarly and worldly, seem to gradually become less so, and more sentimental. Maybe that’s not a bad thing (Is that not also the psychological trajectory of aging?) or maybe with more elucidation of characters’ needs, it would no longer be the case. I’m happy to hear others’ thoughts on the matter, and I’m sure Harrel would be even more so.
In Ciji Guerin’s Noisemaker, a father-son relationship has been freshly beset by tragedy. Hank (Murri Lazaroff-Babin) and his dad Bernie (Joe Healy) have to pick up the pieces after the suicide of their sister/daughter Hadley (J’ena SanCartier), whom they both remember fondly as having the personality of “a carnival.” They’re of one drunken, melancholy, jocular mind until Hadley’s ex-fiancee Todd (Murren Kennedy), their polar opposite, shows up. His matter-of-factness starts to chafe, gradually exposing the dark side of their habit: irresponsibility and denial.
Whether through psychological research or pure insight, Guerin gives Hank a very real-seeming dissociative condition wherein he imagines his body being piloted by a smaller version of himself. The theme of manipulating a machine and/or playing a game is echoed in the aforementioned “carnival” comments as well as the presence of a broken pinball machine in the family’s living room. The pinball itself, of course, is a metaphor for being fecklessly buffetted around by life, a condition Hank seems to mimic as he drunkenly slumps through what looks like a forest of giant straws in the center of the stage that are (probably?) stand-ins for pinball pegs. This pinball/playfulness/resignation to fate theme is unique and smart. Whether it’s too neat, or whether I’m just good at keeping up, I can’t tell.
What I can say is that Lazaroff-Babin is spellbinding as Hank, Healy is eerily believable as Bernie, and Kennedy (though given a drier character) delivers authenticity. SanCartier has fleeting stage time and no lines beyond a few prerecorded voice-overs, so not much can be assessed except that she never misses a cue. It’s surprising that a female playwright would consign the only woman in her show to being a silent ghost, but perhaps it’s intentional, a comment on how, even while women are romanticized, their voices are suppressed, and how they’re often mourned more fondly in death than they’re treated in life? If that seems bleak, just wait. As the plot progresses, we learn a pretty shameful family secret.
All things considered, Noisemaker is an extraordinary performance of a demanding script that asks actors to traverse the whole inebriation spectrum from stone-cold sober to blackout drunk, and take an emotional journey from levity, through existential horror, to eventual repentance and resignation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this play feels like it drags on forever, and the characters’ rinse-and-repeat behavior becomes very tiring over time. Again, maybe that’s an intention—demonstrating how negative habits wear people down? When we think “This again?” maybe we’re brought closer to the mentality of the rut-stuck characters who are thinking the same. After all, an addict’s life does have a certain “SSDD” quality. Even so, it seems like some repetitions could be winnowed, particularly the separate gettings-drunk and the (oh, five? eight?) distinct scenes where a pyromantic ghost wanders out of a burning kitchen and hurls a handbag at her former fiancee, to our initial but ever-dwindling surprise.
Or maybe it takes that much time to make it from horror all the way back to grace. It’s amazing that this play gets there.
With four plays in the workshop phase and half as many in rotation on a small stage, I wonder: Will NWTW’s next step be investing further in one of these? If so, a good tiebreaker might be budget. Jaffa Gate would better flourish with a bigger budget that allowed for more rehearsal time, a more elaborate set, and more expert support. Noisemaker needs no embellishments, only sharp edits, to be good to go. Well—maybe it could use a real pinball machine. But even that can be broken.
Catch Jaffa Gate and/or Noisemaker through this weekend at the Shaking The Tree space, or visit nwtw.org to learn more about Northwest Theatre Workshop.