All Classical Radio James Depreist

Letter from Seattle: 7 winter stage picks

From a Cirque du Soleil hit to updates on Don Quixote and Maxim Gorky to an opera about Malcolm X and more, Seattle's stages are bringing some heat to the chilly season.

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I will be straight with you:  the fall season in Seattle did not get me out the door and into theater seats as often as I had hoped.  Blame it on the gloomy and wet weather, the resurgence of Covid and flu, but also the sometimes lackluster programming on offer.

But the next several months of slated shows is another matter.

On small and larger stages there is an enticing spread of productions – an assortment of works new to Seattle and well-received elsewhere, including two by noted Northwest playwrights (one of which moves to Portland in March), a fresh adaptation of a Russian classic, and a look (finally) at a long-shelved yet timely opera.  Some may even be worth a trip up the I-5 corridor.

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The cast of South Coast Repertory's October 2023 production of "Quixote Nuevo" by Octavio Solis, about to open at Seattle Rep and then moving to Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jenny Graham
The cast of South Coast Repertory’s October 2023 production of “Quixote Nuevo” by Octavio Solis. Photo: Jenny Graham

Quixote Nuevo

Noted Southern Oregon dramatist Octavio Solis, who recently filled in as Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s interim artistic director, has been refining his adaptation of the 17th century Cervantes epic “Don Quixote” for several years now.

Re-set in contemporary Texas along the U.S. border, with a retired Latino literature professor as a modern-day Quixote, it has already had runs at theaters in Dallas, Houston, Colorado, Boston, Hartford, the Bay Area, and Southern California. Now (one pandemic and a lot of script development later) it is finally reaching the Pacific Northwest.

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 Trailing a string of positive reviews, this seriocomic fantasia comes to Seattle Rep (Jan. 19-Feb. 11, 2024), and moves on later to Portland Center Stage (March 2-31, 2024).

A Case for the Existence of God

Nathaniel Tenenbaum and Conner Neddersen in "A Case for the Existence of God" at ACT Theatre in Seattle. Photo: Rosemary Dai Ross
Nathaniel Tenenbaum and Conner Neddersen in “A Case for the Existence of God.” Photo: Rosemary Dai Ross

Probably best known now for “The Whale,” his controversial play and film about an agoraphobic man dealing with self-loathing and extreme obesity, Samuel D. Hunter is an Idaho native and the author of more than a dozen stage plays.

Hunter’s tales are often thoughtful ruminations on religion (as solace and hypocrisy), and frayed but persistent hope, and fleeting (yet precious) moments of interpersonal connection in working-class Idaho lives of quiet desperation.

This recent Off-Broadway work unfolds in a loan office, as a mortgage broker and a man unlikely to secure the loan he seeks gradually find common ground.  ACT artistic director John Langs directs. Feb. 2-18, 2024. ACT Theatre.

Born with Teeth

Left: Title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, 1623, with copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Right: Portrait by an unknown artist of a man thought to be Christopher Marlowe, 1585; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Both images via Wikimedia Commons.

Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.  Were they or weren’t they – friends? Enemies?  Collaborators?  All that – and maybe more…?

Liz Duffy Adams’ nimble comedic two-hander imagines various possibilities as the most touted of Elizabethan playwrights square off in a London pub in a late 16th Century duel of testy literary egos during a ferocious political period in England.

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WESTAF Shoebox Arts

The play comes to West Seattle’s ArtsWest, Feb. 1-25, 2024. (A separate Oregon Shakespeare Festival production runs in rep in Ashland, March 20-Oct. 13, 2024.)    

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Seattle Opera presents the touring production of Anthony Davis's "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X." Photo © Opera Omaha
Seattle Opera presents the touring production of Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” Photo © Opera Omaha

Composed by Anthony Davis, with a libretto by his theater artist cousin Thulani Davis, this dramatic opera had a 1985 premiere in Philadelphia, to mixed reviews.  Was the piece ahead of its time?

Indeed, the times seem to have caught up with this searing work, which has a majority Black cast and covers a lot of territory – from Malcolm’s childhood, through his stormy early adulthood, to his activism, his embrace of Islam, and the assassination that cut his life short at 39.

The opera had its admirers from the beginning, but also detractors who considered it “message theater.”  That’s back when “message” was a dirty word in relation to performance. No more. The New York Times, in a recent review of “Malcolm X” at the Metropolitan Opera, called its “shifts from meditative pause to propulsive action confidently balanced, its unbroken flow from genre to genre as graceful as anything in opera.”

Seattle Opera presents a touring production of the newly excavated work, co-commissioned by the company.  Feb. 24-March 9, 2024. 

The Lower Depths

Seattle cast of Gorky's "The Lower Depths." Photo: Joe Moore
Seattle cast of Gorky’s “The Lower Depths.” Photo: Joe Moore

This is the play that made Maxim Gorky one of the most famous late 19th century writers in Russia and beyond, and injected a new, gritty naturalism to the theatrical depiction of poverty.  Set in a flophouse for penniless male and female residents, the play is rarely staged here. Yet it is unsparing and prescient in its empathy for the outcast underclass. And now is an apt time, given our cities’ growing homeless population, to revisit it.  

The Seagull Project has spent two years translating, adapting and workshopping their new, updated version, a co-production with Intiman Theatre. (I wrote the program notes for the show.) Feb. 6-24, 2024.

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MYS Oregon to Iberia

Corteo

A juggling extravaganza in Cirque du Soleil's "Corteo." Costumes by Dominique Lemieux. Photo: MajaPrgomet
A juggling extravaganza in Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo.” Costumes by Dominique Lemieux. Photo: MajaPrgomet

An encore of my favorite extravaganza from the Canada-based troupe Cirque du Soleil’s repertory of wonders, “Corteo” will be performed indoors at Climate Pledge Arena, a sports and big-name rock concert venue at the Seattle Center – formerly known (before a major renovation, and change of sponsorship) as Key Arena.

In contrast to some of the Cirque’s vaguely mythic-themed shows, “Corteo” is fittingly set in a circus milieu, and like a Fellini dreamscape it spins through the visions of an elder Italian buffoon. The acrobatics are, as usual, awe-inspiring – and, yes, some intrepid artistes do literally swing from the chandeliers. Five performances, Jan. 17-20, 2024. 

Memoirs of a Forgotten Man 

A journalist in Stalinist Russia is blessed (and cursed) with a photographic memory.  But under a regime of enforced forgetting, what will be his fate?  And who will write the history of the times?

D.W. Gregory’s 2018 drama sure rings a few contemporary bells, with democracy on the line, journalism imperiled, and disinformation twisting the political/historical narrative. The reliable Thalia’s Umbrella company presents the Seattle premiere at Taproot Theatre’s studio theater space, Feb. 22-March 9, 2024.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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