Hooked on crooks: How ‘Breaking Bad’ created a bona fide binge-watcher

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 22, 2014.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

It took awhile, but I finally went over to the dark side.

There’s nothing new about binge-watching — Netflix says it’s here to stay — but I could never get myself to take the plunge.

Until recently.

I was defeated in a war of attrition. I broke down, upgrading my Netflix account to the two-DVDs-at-once plan. Then my wife and I took another ominous step. We ordered Apple TV, hooked it up to our 8-year-old TV and to our amazement discovered that it worked.

Now a universe of movies and TV series is available at the touch of a finger. We’re free to roam the Netflix streaming library. Delayed gratification is a thing of the past. And it didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was late to the party. But then I usually am.

I took an early plunge with “The Sopranos” just before its third season.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. (HBO)

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

We hadn’t watched the iconic show about New Jersey gangsters trying to acquire the trappings of suburban respectability until HBO ginned up interest in the new episodes by running a marathon of Seasons 1 and 2. The TV happened to be on. We happened to have HBO on the screen. And we happened to watch one episode. And then we watched another. And then another.

After consuming a couple of years of “Sopranos” episodes in a single day, there was no choice but to become regular viewers.

Last year we immersed ourselves in the “House of Cards” experience. We weren’t set up for streaming yet, so we watched the entire first season on DVDs as fast as Netflix could get them to us.

The addictive narrative about an American politician scheming, lying and murdering his way into the White House offered just the right mix of elements to keep us hooked. It was smart. It was sophisticated. It was lurid. And it put some great actors together with some distinguished directors. What more could you ask for?

But then we discovered “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series about a schoolteacher in New Mexico who becomes a meth dealer after his lung-cancer diagnosis.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said the fictitious idea was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Evidently he hit a chord. The show now has a permanent place in pop culture.

You can buy T-shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried-chicken franchise that fronted a drug-smuggling empire. Or shirts with the image of Heisenberg, schoolteacher Walter White’s drug-dealer persona, looking pretty scary in his sunglasses and black porkpie hat.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Once again, we were late to the party. It was months after AMC broadcast the final episode that we began watching. It was all because of our friend Julie, a cancer survivor in Leawood. She insisted we had to watch the show. She and her husband, Terry, had consumed the entire series in a matter of weeks. Now she wanted us to watch it so we could share her obsession.

My wife, Donna, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A high school teacher who becomes a drug dealer? It just sounds so contrived.”

“Just watch it,” Julie insisted.

“But …”

Just watch it.”

So we did — more out of loyalty to Julie than curiosity.

But viewing the episodes in order was a challenge. Netflix had a “very long wait” for Season 1, Disc 1. Area libraries, same problem. We had no choice but to buy the first season on disc.

So, Season 1 in hand, we started watching. Then we watched some more. Before long the show about chemistry teacher Walter White and high school dropout Jesse Pinkman wading into a world of meth addiction, murder and organized crime had us — well, hooked. We’d watch three or four episodes in one sitting. The other seasons were readily available on Netflix, so we began working through them. There were painful days, inevitably, when there was no red envelope waiting in the mailbox.

Julie understood.

“You won’t want to stop,” she said.

When Julie and Terry were in the grip of their “Breaking Bad” binge, they structured their weekends around the show. Friends would invite them to dinner but they’d say, “No, we have plans.” After all, there were unwatched episodes just waiting to be loaded into Terry’s Blu-ray player.

“I would say the show is as addictive as blue meth is to addicts,” Julie said.

At one point they began to toss around Jesse Pinkman’s favored epithet.

“We walk around the house saying, ‘Hey, bitch, you ready?’ ” she said.

And Julie, the most kindhearted person I know, found herself identifying on some level with monomaniacal Walter as he metamorphosed from unremarkable high school teacher to murderous, power-hungry sociopath.

“There were things about his cancer diagnosis that I related to,” Julie said. “Going through chemo and being sick I could kind of relate to. I don’t think I’d be able to put a bullet in someone’s head, but you know …”

The word “binge,” of course, has a pejorative ring to it. It’s a word to describe eating a package of Oreos in one sitting or knocking off two or three bottles of wine before the 10 o’clock news.

But what if you decided to read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” back to back one summer? Would that be considered “binge reading”?

Watching Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood claw his way to power on “House of Cards” inevitably brings William Shakespeare to mind. Francis and Richard III have a few things in common.

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Richard III meets Lady Macbeth: Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright in “House of Cards.” (Netflix)

Indeed, long before anyone had heard of TV bingeing, the Bard set a precedent of sorts with his history plays about the succession of English monarchs in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare wrote eight plays that form a continuous narrative from the reign of Richard II to the rule of Henry VI. Now and then a brave or foolhardy theater company — usually in Britain — takes it upon itself to stage all of them.

Some companies like to pair two of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays, “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” with one actor playing Antony in both. On matinee days audiences could sit through both with a dinner break in-between.

Eugene O’Neill had a penchant for writing plays that clocked in at more than four hours. And some contemporary playwrights have created binge-like viewing experiences with epic dramas, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” both of which must be viewed as two full-length plays.

But nobody in theater or film had ever produced anything quite like “Breaking Bad,” which followed a clear thematic progression and coherent narrative from beginning to end.

“Shakespearean” is an apt description. Each episode was an existential journey into darkness, as cerebral as it was lurid. And the show religiously adhered to Gilligan’s original vision: to turn a protagonist into an antagonist as the series progressed.

Responding to questions by email, Gilligan said he, the actors and his team of writers and directors all were committed to Walter White’s journey.

“When it became clear in Season 4 that Walter White’s story was headed toward its natural conclusion, we didn’t fight or ignore that realization,” Gilligan said. “It’s important to know when to call it quits.”

Gilligan, by the way, says he’s not much of a binge-watcher — with one notable exception.

“Every New Year’s Eve, the SyFy Channel broadcasts a marathon of the original ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, which I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like. I can’t quite figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of holiday tradition for me, I guess.”

But Gilligan in no way underestimates the power of binge-watching and what it says about the way we now consume television shows and movies.

“No matter how old-fashioned I may be personally, I am foursquare behind the concept of binge-watching,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. ‘Breaking Bad’ benefited immensely from it — and perhaps was ultimately saved by it. Binge-watching transformed my career.”

As for Spacey, an executive producer on “House of Cards,” he was quoted recently saying that while his show didn’t start the bingeing phenomenon, Netflix did set a precedent by releasing an entire season at once so people could stream every episode if they chose.

“I think it goes to say how much an audience is really digging being in control and being able to treat a series the way they treat a novel,” Spacey said. “(They) pick it up when they want to pick it up and put it down when they want to put it down.”

Since then I’ve explored other binge candidates. We watched the complete “Luther,” a British police procedural starring Idris Elba as a detective with a history of mental problems and ethical lapses who nonetheless nabs a serial killer by the end of each episode.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “Ripper Street,” a blood-spattered depiction of police detectives in 1889 London.

We checked out “Dexter,” another show I never watched when it was in production. It’s enthusiastically grotesque and somehow invites the word “lighthearted” in its depiction of a serial killer who only kills murderers who got away with it.

And I checked out “The Walking Dead,” another AMC show, about the zombie apocalypse; plenty of action, but too much time spent on humorless survival-camp politics for my taste.

So what are the “Breaking Bad” fans supposed to do? No other show has offered such a consistent, dramatically coherent through line. No other show could draw viewers into an extreme-yet-plausible narrative with such skill.

“There’s an intensity, of course, when you watch back-to-back episodes,” said Paul Tyler, grants director for the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. Tyler said he and his wife didn’t discover “Breaking Bad” until the third season, so they watched the first two in a frenzy on DVDs.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of the best things we’ve ever seen on TV,” Tyler said. “The realism of the show made it all so believable. And the consistency and the arc of those characters over such a long period of time was really phenomenal.”

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” (AMC)

In the interest of something — let’s call it closure — we invited Julie and Terry to watch the final two episodes of “Breaking Bad” with us.

The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there they were — wearing T-shirts showing the periodic table of elements, a reference to the show’s unique credits. And Terry was wearing sunglasses and a black, flat-brimmed Heisenberg hat.

“We’re here, bitch,” he said.

As the credits rolled at the end of “Felina,” the final episode, in which Walter White meets his inevitable end, there was a real sense of loss. The series was over. And we could never watch it as newbies again.

Some of the “Breaking Bad” acolytes are eager to see “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel. But how can it wield the power of the original? Julie wants to watch “Breaking Bad” again from the beginning — when the time is right.

“There was something about ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” she said. “We couldn’t stop.”

(c) 2014 by the Kansas City Star

Another round of ‘Skillet Tag’ at the Living Room

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

“Skillet Tag,” a memorable R-rated farce that made its debut at the Kansas City Fringe Festival last summer, returns to the Living Room in somewhat different form.

The show, written by Pete Bakely and produced by Play On Productions,  depicts a corporate retreat at which a megalomaniacal boss insists that his employees engage in a game of “skillet tag.” Things get out of control, to put it mildly. The company, by the way, makes greeting cards somewhere in the Midwest.

Bryan Moses is directing the Living Room production, which features Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque, both of whom appeared in the Fringe Festival version. Other cast members include Missy Fennewald, Briana Marxen-McCollum, Jeff Smith, Coleman Crenshaw, Tim Ahlenius and Devon Barnes. The show runs through Dec. 22 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St.

For more information, call 816-308-2131 or go to BrownPaperTickets.com.

Here’s my KC Star review of the Fringe Festival production:

Posted on Wed, Jul. 25, 2012 11:05 PM

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

I can’t say why, but there’s something highly amusing — and imminently satisfying — about seeing somebody get hit on the head with a frying pan. Let’s face it: A pie in the face isn’t half as funny.

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Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque in the Fringe Fest production of “Skillet Tag.”

That particular brand of comic violence is central to Pete Bakely’s “Skillet Tag,” a raucous farce that finds time to satirize the global economy between outrageous acts of onstage violence.

The set-up is a “team-building” exercise called by Jeff, an executive at a global greeting-card company that happens to be based in Kansas City. He brings together his office assistant, his staff attorney, his I.T. guy, a junior executive and a woman who shows up at the office each day to do nothing but drink.

This exercise is carried out in Jeff’s home and his idea is for the assembled employees to play an unusual game of tag in which the “tagging” is done with cast-iron skillets and steel frying pans. This can lead to nothing good, naturally, and when one of the characters is “tagged” with fatal results, a chain reaction is set in motion. Before the final curtain, the stage has been littered with bodies.

What makes the show fun is what Bakely does with his characters and plot. Revelations and reversals are cleverly woven into the story and the R-rated comedy is often so over the top that laughter is the only natural response.

The talented cast has varying levels of experience but director Sam Slosburg gives them a good run. Timing is key, and while some of the action was off a beat or two Wednesday night, much of it was on the money.

Of the men, the best performance comes from J. Will Fritz, the insecure computer technician, who finds himself reluctantly drawn into a hedonistic nightmare. Fritz plays the role like a little kid who just wants to go home and he scores some of the biggest laughs in the show.

Matt Leonard gives us a successful, aggressive performance as the megalomaniacal boss with a bizarre sex life that becomes clear as the play progresses. He’s the kind of employer who expresses frustration at the Human Resources Department for its insistence on things like firing with cause and its fussy rules about sexual harassment.

Phillip Shinn is amusing as a glib executive who looks for ways to turn the evening of murders to a business advantage and Kyle Wallen makes an impression in a brief but indelible appearance as a cop, whose incongruous beard and long hair would lead you to peg him as a heavy metal musician or resident of a hobo camp.

The women offer nice comic performances across the board, but none is more impressive than Kenna Marie Hall, whose transition from PMS-crazed office assistant to sexually aggressive serial killer is something to see.

Laura Jacobs gives us a smart, smoothly realized performance as the blithely inebriated corporate untouchable who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit by choosing to keep her job without having to do any work. Aurelie Roque seems a bit straitjacketed as the lawyer, although she knows how to deliver amusing one-liners. Chelsey Tigue, who shows up as a second cop in the closing minutes of the play, uses her obvious miscasting to her comic advantage.

Bakely exhibits a gift for absurdist humor and shows us that farce is far from dead. But with his penchant for the grotesque and wild sexual humor, Bakely is unlikely to see his work produced at the dinner theater anytime soon.

Slosburg puts together a clever curtain call, in which each actor comes on stage to be murdered by another, until at last the cast is piled in a heap at center stage. A fitting end to a show that delights in homicide.

Read more arts news at www.kansascity.com/entertainment.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

KC Fringe: Where comedy and tragedy share time and space

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
How nice it would be to see every single KC Fringe performance. Alas, that would be impossible unless your humble theater critic could be cloned three times over.

But the best of five shows I caught during the first weekend of the annual festival was “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” a play by Vicki Vodrey, for whom raucous humor and profound tragedy are in no way incompatible.

Scott Cox and Vanessa Severo in “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

Steven Eubank directed the show, which is playing at the Unicorn Theatre during the festival, and had the benefit of a superior cast in the form of Vanessa Severo, Scott Cox and Mandy Mook. Severo plays Angela, a suicide victim who becomes an irreverent presence at her own funeral as her twin brother Ethan (Cox) reads a eulogy composed entirely of “thank-you notes” Angela wrote before she died.

The play is an eccentric comedy in the early going, but its seriousness is revealed as Angela’s notes become increasingly revelatory. The funeral becomes a transformative event for Ethan and his wife, Betsy (Mook).

Severo and Cox are equally matched, each handling difficult roles with spectacular results. This play is disturbing, but it’s also inspiring. Vodrey has a unique voice. There’s one more performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Other shows from the first weekend:

•  “Ice Cream Social … Issues” by Natalie and Talia Liccardello is a clever comedy about a family intervention that goes as wrong as possible. People have gathered for an ice cream social in a church basement in an effort to get help for a family member who is a heroin addict. Everything deteriorates rapidly. Manon Halliburton, as a Xanax-gobbling aunt with control issues, is excellent. She delivers a memorable comic performance and anchors an excellent cast. Directed by Warren Deckert, who demonstrates a keen eye for character details.

Performances are at 6:30 p.m. today and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Manon Halliburton, left, and Danelle Drury in “Ice Cream Social . . . Issues.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

•  “Tack Driver,” written and directed by Jerry Genochio. I caught this on the opening night of the festival, and I imagine it’s considerably different now. This is Genochio’s first play, in which Kyle Hatley and Matt Rapport are cast as brothers who swore an oath to kill their abusive stepfather. Apparently rewrites could continue right through the festival. At times on opening night, Hatley and Rapport performed holding pages with new dialogue. It’s intriguing and rich with possibilities — and it’s fun to watch Hatley and Rapport work together. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

•  “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson. Larson’s three-character comedy imagines what might happen if a gay man and a lesbian fell in love. Directed by Scott Cordes, this smart comedy of manners about sex and love in an urban, digital world highlights Greg Brostrom, Kate O’Neill and Missy Fennewald. It continues at 6 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St.

•  “4Play,” a quartet of one-acts by Jose Faus, Ken Buch, Michelle T. Johnson and Jack Phillips. This grouping of short comedies covers religious mania, sex, love and hypocrisy with varying degrees of success. Best of the bunch: “As the Guiding Light Turns,” a witty piece by Johnson about church politics and sexuality. See it at 11 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

Read more theater news at http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/theater.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ shows its age but packs a punch

Posted on Sat, Mar. 10, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

The stage version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” like the novel, celebrates the chaos of freedom, glorifying the individual in his eternal battle against dehumanizing bureaucracies.

Scott Cordes (Susan Pfannmuller for the Kansas City Star)

So it’s not surprising that the loose-jointed production at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is a bit chaotic, sometimes by design, sometimes not. But the artists involved find a way to turn any deficiencies into strengths. Director William Christie guides an able cast through this mythic confrontation between the rebel Randle McMurphy and the dictatorial psychiatric Nurse Ratched and ultimately delivers a powerful piece of theater.

Scott Cordes, one might argue, was born to play McMurphy, a decorated Army veteran who nonetheless received a dishonorable discharge. The actor’s persona dovetails beautifully with the character. As a result, McMurphy’s larger-than-life defiance never seems forced. He is what he is – a hard-drinking, brawling, gambling, hooker-loving misfit who can only be stopped by a sledge hammer.

After committing himself to a mental hospital to finish up a jail term (he reasons that the hospital will be a welcome relief from the drudgery of prison work details), he meets his formidable nemesis. Jan Chapman, whose tall stature, chiseled cheekbones and ice-queen smile make her the ideal physical embodiment of Ratched, plays the part with tightly-controlled reserve in counterpoint to Cordes’s loose-cannon antics. In the penultimate scene, her reserve is finally stripped away, and we see the unbridled sadist within as she and McMurphy grapple in a death struggle.

Playwright Dale Wasserman, whose adaptation was first staged just four years after the novel’s publication in 1959, sets the action entirely in the day room of a psychiatric hospital. The novel is told through the internal, surrealistic, perceptions of Chief Bromden (played by Ari Bavel), a mountainous and presumably deaf-mute Native American, and Wasserman tries to capture some of that imagery with dreamlike monologues. In this production, those are recorded voice-overs that might have worked better if Bavel had simply been allowed to speak them onstage. But for the most part Wasserman settles for a straight narrative, which gives the play a much more prosaic feel. Even so, it’s still a story that sucks you in. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

Kate Brown: A face in the crowd; ‘Game Show’ actress might be at the table beside you.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Every show has its fans, but how many productions are attended by the same theatergoer at every single performance?

The answer is none — unless you happen to be talking about “Game Show.”

The comedy set against the backdrop of a TV quiz show is at the New Theatre. It opened Nov. 10, and will wrap up with two performances today.

Kate Brown and Jim Korinke in "Game Show" (New Theatre)

And, as she has for the last two and half months, a young woman known to theatergoers as “Tina Williams from Raytown” will take her seat at a small table, go through the buffet line, chat with members of the audience nearby, interact with the waitstaff and try her best to blend in with the crowd. Until, that is, it’s time for her stop blending.

“Game Show,” you see, is an audience-participation show. Some of the audience participants are very real. They bought tickets to the show with a vague awareness that they might be called onstage to take part in four rounds of games.

But Tina Williams is actually an improv actress from Chicago named Kate Brown. And she’s so good at seeming like a “normal” person that most people in the audience are fooled until late in the show.

“Because I have to be part of the audience, I’m really just playing myself,” Brown said. “If I look nervous, it’s because I allow myself to be nervous.”

Brown is one of two Chicago actors in the production. The other is Peter DeFaria, also an improv performer, who plays a camera operator. The trick, Brown said, is to seem like a convincingly reluctant participant. “Tina” is initially selected to help the fictional TV show’s star Troy Richards (played by Charles Shaugnessy) read the introductions early in the show. Then she returns to her seat.

But later in Act I, Troy Richards tells his production manager how attractive he thinks Tina Williams of Raytown is and asks him to get her phone number. Then, in Act 2, Troy descends to the audience again and enlists Tina to help him ask questions. Eventually she’s lured back to the stage where she becomes increasingly involved in the plot.

Just how reluctant Tina is, Brown said, reflects the audience at each performance.

“When I’m in the audience I try to gauge my level of willing participation based on the audience energy,” she said. “If they’re kind of wild and crazy, and have a couple of drinks and clap and cheer, you get a sharper, funnier — but still nervous — version of Tina.”

Parts of the show are tightly scripted but other scenes are very loose because much of what happens will be determined by audience reactions. When director Richard Carrothers decided Tina should live in Raytown, it didn’t take long for Brown to understand that the venerable suburban community just east of Kansas City and south of Independence has long been the brunt of jokes for its perceived backwardness.

“I intended to do some serious actor research about Raytown but as (the show) started rolling people just told me about it,” she said. “So I looked at the geography of Raytown so I would know where things were and I picked a place where I lived and I made up a place to work.”

Her backstory involved Tina moving to Raytown from southeast Iowa — where Brown is from — and having English teachers for parents, which she does.

“That stuff is all real because it’s my real life,” she said. “I have to be a real person, and it’s easier to be a real person if most of the stuff coming out of your mouth is true.”

Brown is always seated at a single table but there are plenty of real customers on all sides for her to chat with. Some are suspicious and demand to know from very early on if she’s really part of the show. But most just swallow her performance hook, line and sinker.

And, yes, Brown always eats dinner — sometimes twice a day.

“I kind of do,” she said. “I feel like it wouldn’t be real if I sat there and didn’t eat. It would be pretty suspicious. The food is absolutely delicious and the first week I was like, ‘This is great!’ But then I gained four pounds. So now I just eat vegetables most of the time. And I always eat the salads.”

To make the performance work she has to walk a fine line, she said.

“The way I know how to explain it is I react honestly to everything that happens to me,” she said. “I react as honestly as possible. If an actor gets too close to me, I back up. If the cameras come on, I notice it. You acknowledge that kind of thing. You acknowledge the lights are very bright. Another trick is to say as little as possible because actors try to be funny and real people just try not to embarrass themselves.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


Evening with LuPone and Patinkin spotlights duo’s many talents

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

It wasn’t really a straight concert. It wasn’t exactly a stroll down memory lane. And it was something more than a Broadway greatest-hits revue.

And although all of those ingredients are found in “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” the show more than anything is LuPone and Patinkin doing their own thing, which met with unbridled approval on opening night Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (photo by Brigitte LaCombe)

What LuPone and Patinkin demonstrated, to no one’s surprise, was that the two Tony Award winners are terrific performers, skilled actors and passionate singers, even if they qualify for senior discounts. They were in fine voice Tuesday, although to be fair, there were fleeting moments when their pitch was less than 100 percent. Even so, Patinkin can take his bass-baritone from a low rumble to a delicate whisper in the upper registers and LuPone still is a master of her signature tunes.

The eclectic song selection includes material many of us can hum in the shower and songs so obscure that we’ve never heard them before. Accompanied by pianist Paul Ford and bassist James Albright, Patinkin and LuPone worked their way through a variety of show tunes that provided a cavalcade of romantic relationships.

Inevitably, Stephen Sondheim is well represented, starting with the opening number, “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” I’ll happily cop to being a philistine for not worshiping at the temple of Sondheim, but the carefully selected songs in this program are performed with deep feeling and high style. Read the complete review at kansascity.com.

A sad, comic journey from light to darkness in ‘The Seagull’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s impressive production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is remarkable in several ways, but most remarkable of all is how contemporary this 1895 play feels.

Nobody really lives the way Chekhov’s characters live – nor have they for a very long time – but the fate of men and women who are by turns foolishly idealistic, delusively ambitious, emotionally controlling, morbidly romantic and defensively distant will inevitably remind us of people we’ve known.

Robert Gibby Brand and Cheryl Weaver in "The Seagull" (Bob Paisley)

Tom Stoppard’s 1997 translation certainly has a lot to do with the work’s contemporary sensibility, but so do the actors in the MET production. Director Karen Paisley’s ensemble delivers generally strong performances and some of them are exceptional.

Chekhov’s play, which he considered a comedy, begins in the warmth and sunlight of summer and concludes in the icy rain of winter – a clear metaphor for the collective journey taken by his characters. It is, indeed, very funny at times, even as circumstances push some characters to a tragic fate. Foolish people can be quite amusing until their folly triggers fatal consequences.

The piece opens as young Konstantin (Coleman Crenshaw) prepares for a lakeside performance of his new play, with which he hopes to impress his mother, the visiting actress Irina Arkadina (Cheryl Weaver). Among the spectators are Masha (Jessica Franz), the estate manager’s daughter who is being courted by Medvedenko (Chris Roady), an impoverished school teacher, although she’s in love with Konstantin.

Also on hand are Irina’s lover, the famous writer Trigorin (Forrest Attaway), and her older brother Sorin (Richard Alan Nichols), who owns the estate. Dorn (Robert Gibby Brand), a doctor, is present, as are the estate manager Shamraev (Alan Tilson) and his wife Polina (Nancy Marcy).

Ashlee LaPine and Forrest Attaway (Bob Paisley)

Konstantin’s play is a surrealistic affair, performed by young Nina (Ashlee LaPine), an aspiring actress from a neighboring estate. Nobody can make any sense of the play, which Konstantin insists points the way to a new kind of theater that breaks from the trite traditions of his mother’s theatrical universe.

The relationships are a sort of kaleidoscope of dead-end romantic fantasies. Konstantin is in love with Nina, but Nina becomes enamored of Trigorin, who responds to her charms at the expense of his bond with Irina. But Irina, well aware of her lover’s wandering eye, exerts a hold on his affections that he cannot fully reject. Dorn and Polina, meanwhile, appear to have been lovers and perhaps still are.

In the end, nobody really gets what they think they want. Masha enters a loveless marriage with the school teacher. Nina and Trigorin become lovers but he eventually goes back to Irina. Konstantin becomes a published writer, although he struggles to find his voice. Nina becomes an actress in the provinces, although she’s not much good at it. The others try to continue life as they always have until they are rudely reminded that time never stands still.

Some of these actors deliver spectacular work. LaPine’s Nina follows an arc from naïve aspirant seduced by the allure of fame to a broken woman on the brink of madness. LaPine negotiates the transition with a note-perfect performance. With equal finesse, Weaver balances Irina’s pat imperiousness with her sheer desperation when she thinks she’s losing Trigorin.

Attaway, as Trigorin, comes up with another fascinating performance as an author and playwright who doesn’t believe in his own talents but is nonetheless compelled to write. His big scene with Nina, in which he explains the plight of being a famous but under-appreciated writer, is as memorable for its humor as it is for its subtlety.

When Attaway is matched with the excellent Weaver or the luminous LaPine, the production achieves a high level of artistry. Delivering superior support are Brand (who has racked up a phenomenal string of fine performances at the MET), Nichols, Marcy and Tilson.

Franz is memorable as Masha, Roady seems a bit forced and Crenshaw delivers a deeply felt performance that isn’t as specific as it needs to be. At times, the dramatic balance is a little out of whack, and some of the events on stage have minimal impact. Paisley makes a few missteps — music threatens to drown out the last line of dialogue in the play and she overdoes the sound effects — but for the most part she seems in command of the material.

This is a handsomely mounted show, thanks in large part to Jason Coale’s rustic scenic design and especially Shannon Smith’s costumes, which are the best-looking clothes I’ve ever seen at the MET.

At the end of the day, this production lingers in the mind. Chekhov’s characters seek meaning in art and happiness in love. They play a high-stakes game that can make them winners in the short run. But it’s a journey that inevitably leads to desolation.

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