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re's to the LadiesSunny turns by strong women warm the rainy days this winter season.Several actresses got a real chance to strut their stuff in productions this past month, making up for a still slow start to the 2001 season in the Puget Sound region. The coming month holds several Shakespeare entries, a rare almost all-Seattle cast production of 1776 at the 5th Avenue and the beginning of the annual Seattle Fringe Festival which often yields some of the most innovative and outrageous theatre seen all year. For now we savor the ladies who brightened up our stages during the chilliest season of the year.Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, first staged Off-Broadway in the 1960's and later filmed with Joanne Woodward, has held up rather well as a model of the autobiographical, sentimental play, and the recent ArtsWest Theatre production more than did it justice. Karen Kinch, the company's departing founding artistic director paced the show well, and above all found actresses able to capture all the humor and heartbreak of Zindel's emotionally scarred and alcoholic Beatrice -- a.k.a. "Betty the Loon" -- seizure-prone elder daughter Ruth, and shy but promising bookworm Tillie, whose science project gives the play its title.Pat Sibley, long confined to comedic and supporting roles rose to her first big dramatic role as Beatrice like she'd been waiting for the opportunity all her life. Sibley's Beatrice was pathetic yet proud, beaten but unbowed, and motherly though misguided. Sibley's broad but never overdone portrayal was matched by Amie St. Amour's delicate yet staunch Tillie and Erica Michaels' coltish, abrasive Ruth. Marigolds was the easily best production this writer has seen at ArtsWest, with material that could have faltered in less skilled hands.Actress Pat Sibley was on more familiar comic ground, yet still giving a detailed and delightful performance, as dotty Mother Penny in Taproot Theatre's just-opened production of You Can't Take It With You. Though George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's screwball '30s comedy has not seen the wind go out of its comic sails in 60 some odd years, it still requires a firm directorial touch. It also requires the actors to play the zany eccentric Sycamores, the Wall Street stuffed shirt Kirbys, and assorted others, as flesh-and-blood people, not comedic archetypes. These challenges were happily realized at Taproot. Director Karen Lund saw to it that her expert cast went through its paces at a merry whirl, something that is vital in the older three-act play form. Starting with Eddie Levi Lee's cuddly yet sly quipster Grandpa Sycamore, and Sibley's pixillated playwright Penny, the large ensemble cast didn't miss a laugh or a heart tug. Special kudos are due to Pam Nolte's hilarious dual roles as besotted actress Gaye Wellington and Grand Duchess-turned-waitress Olga Katrina; Candace Vance, who gave the often blandly acted heroine Alice a comic zing that made her a more logical family tie-in; Samuel Vance's deliciously off-kilter Ed, and Bob Gallagher's uptight zany take on Mr. Kirby. It was hard to imagine such a large cast show playing well on Taproot's intimate stage, but scenic designer worked wonders with his set design, so the action never seemed to be overcrowded. Several of the larger Equity houses in town could take a lesson from this little company's skillful endeavors.Beauty Queens and Gorey GirlsOut at Tacoma Actor's Guild, Martin McDonagh's overrated and overwrought Broadway and London hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane proved more impressive than a Seattle Rep production two seasons back, largely because all four actors, under Rita Giomi's nuanced direction, rose to the challenge of playing McDonagh's unappealing small-town Irish oddballs. Like Pat Sibley, veteran actress Laura Kenny had a field day after finally being given a role with some meat to chew on. Kenny dines with gusto on the role of the maddening Irish matriarch Mag, actually endowing her with enough humor and empathy to make us understand, if not accept, why she is so vile to daughter Maureen. Kenny is matched by Stephanie Shine's understated but multi-layered performance as Maureen. Shine plays down the martyr aspect of her character and conveys a cold zeal in her tormenting of Mag that shows us clearly the apple didn't fall very far in this family tree. David Drummond is warmly likable as Maureen's would-be beau Pato Dooley, and Jason Collins is both goofy and menacing as Pato's rather dim brother Ray. What lulls there are in the production are due to the playwright and certainly not to the expert team behind this production.It's the ladies who also stand out in Village Theatre's handsome mounting of the rather dull musical After the Fair. Based on a Thomas Hardy novella, Stephen Cole and Matthew Ward's tale of two unhappy turn-of-the-century couples--a barrister, a maid, and the married couple who employ her--is certainly subtler fare than the normal brassy Village Theatre offerings, but a still-in-development version done two seasons back in the company's new works series served this slender tale better. Mary Jo DuGaw as the unhappy mistress of the house and Leslie Law as the buxom but illiterate maid for who she plays Cyrano are vocally superb and warmly human. Real stage excitement happens only occasionally, such as a duet where the two women go at each other. Mostly these women--and their male counterparts: Joshua Bott as the barrister, and Hugh Hastings as the husband--are hamstrung by Ward's melodic but mediocre music, Cole's intelligent but rarely inspired lyrics, and a plot that yields its only real surprise at the very conclusion. Village Theatre stands behind its intent to help develop new musicals admirably, but one must question what criteria is being used to determine which shows move on to their mainstage. Perhaps with newly hired associate artistic director Brian Yorkey in charge of the Village Originals new works series, more substantial works will be allowed to move up to full productions.The usually adventurous Open Circle Theatre went for a crowd pleaser with the musical Gorey Stories, based on the macabre poems and drawings of the late Edward Gorey, and while I admit the audience at the performance I attended got a kick out of it, it left me cold. A curious semi-musical, adapted by Stephen Currans, with music by David Aldrich, it mostly sets Gorey's peculiar poems about deformed children, murderous circumstances, and other unspeakable but potentially darkly amusing events, to monotonous melodies that drain them of their humor. Director Susan McIntyre and a game cast get the look and expressions of Gorey down adroitly, as if they had sprung from the printed page. But sitting through Gorey Stories reminded me mostly of a Noel Coward ditty written for a '50s TV special, entitled "Ninety Minutes Is a Long, Long, Time."Sad Day in SeattleFinally, Seattle is mourning the loss of actor/singer/director Clarke Evans, who passed away Jan. 30, 2001, after a brief battle with cancer. Though recent stage appearances were limited to appearances in such musicals as Anyone Can Whistle, Music Man, and Bells Are Ringing, Evans played many roles at the old Bathhouse Theatre in the '70s, had a supporting role in the film After Hours in the '80s, and, in the'90s, split his time between Seattle and Honolulu, where he directed notable productions of such plays as Master Class, Born Yesterday, Boys in the Band, Jake's Women, and Love! Valour! Compassion! Clarke is survived by his parents and life partner Joel Ewing. He will be remembered in song and stories at Village Theatre in Issaquah on Feb. 1

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