The Truth Behind ‘Truth Like the Sun’

When the World’’s Fair came to Seattle in 1962, this corner of the Northwest finally landed on the international map. From April through October of that year ten million people, filled with space age wonder, visited this uppermost corner of the country. The Space Needle arose. The Project Mercury capsule that carried Alan Shepard into space was on display. The monorail, “the world’s first full-scale rapid-transit system,” took off. The World of Tomorrow exhibit, billed as a “21-minute tour of the future,” featured a giant spherical hydraulic elevator made of acrylic glass—called, fittingly, the Bubbleator. Count Basie performed; Lawrence Welk did, too. Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe paintings hung in the Fine Arts Pavilion. Ed Sullivan did live broadcasts under the Space Needle. Elvis Presley visited and made a movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair. More than 50 years later, Jim Lynch tapped into this pivotal period for his novel Truth Like the Sun, and Book-It Repertory Theatre jumped at the chance to bring his Seattle-centric work to the stage. 

“I wanted to write a novel that cut to the core of Seattle,” Lynch recently told Jane Jones, who adapted and is directing Truth Like the Sun for Book-It. “And the World’s Fair has always loomed in the recent past as this coming-out party for this young, ambitious city. The audacity of the fair is what struck me as quintessentially Seattle… so I wanted to mesh the fair with modern Seattle and see if I couldn’t come up with a storyline that could weave the two Seattles together into something illuminating.”

Truth Like the Sun is Lynch’s third novel, a political thriller firmly set in those two Seattles—the glory of the 1962 World’s Fair and the glory of 2001, in the gold rush technology boom times after Microsoft’s ascendency. The story is that of fictional Roger Morgan, a mastermind who brings the fair to Seattle, eager to make the city famous. The novel, and subsequent theatrical adaptation, blends that time in his life and forty years later when he’s running for mayor in hopes of bringing Seattle back to its former glory. Gumming up the works is an eager reporter, Helen Gulanos, who is looking into Morgan’s career to see who he really is and to see where his power comes from.

“There is much marveling to be done as Truth Like the Sun unfolds,” wrote The New York Times. The Dallas Morning News called Lynch’s work, “taut and accomplished,” while The London Independent raved, Lynch is “a consummate stylist.”

No one hailed the work louder than Book-It, which quickly snapped up the rights to produce the work on stage. “You write about our region and community from an insider’s perspective,” Jones recently told Lynch in an Encore Arts Program article. “You’re local… and your narrative really suits the Book-It style… You write people we either think we know or want to know.”

Book-It is staging the production about the World’s Fair at the Seattle Center, itself created for the World’s Fair. Adapted from the novel by Jones and Kevin McKeon, it stars Chris Ensweiler as Roger Morgan and Jennifer Lee Taylor as Helen Gulanos. The cast also includes Northern Exposure alum Cynthia Geary, McKeon, and Chad Kelderman, amongst others. “Putting the fair on stage has probably been the trickiest,” Jones admitted. “We have a cast of 15 and are representing an event that drew 115,000 people a day at closing. But we like challenges, and a lot of really smart artists are spending a lot of time making those impressions.”

Book-It has long been impressed with Lynch, a former Seattle Times reporter and current Olympia resident. With Truth Like the Sun up and running, the company has officially staged all three of Lynch’s novels. His 2006 debut, The Highest Tide, is a coming-of-age novel set along the tide flats of south Puget Sound. Book-It staged it in 2008. Border Songs, about a border patrol agent along the rural western end of the U.S.-Canada border, was published in 2009, and won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction. Book-It staged that production to rave reviews in 2011. And now, running on stage through May 18, is Truth Like the Sun, another Lynch play that places him firmly on Book-It’s theatre map. There, right next to the Space Needle.

‘In the Book Of’ Allison Strickland

“Everyone starts out a stranger,” says Allison Strickland, a lead actor in Taproot Theatre’s new production, In the Book Of. “To people. To places. To experiences.” Stranger no longer to Seattle’s theatre scene, Strickland is eager to share to audiences this rarely seen play, written by John Walch and directed by Scott Nolte.

For those unfamiliar with In the Book Of, it’s based loosely on the Book of Ruth, a slim book in the Old Testament. It centers around Lieutenant Naomi Watkins (Strickland, and her Afghan translator Anisah, played by Carolyn Marie Monroe. They’ve both lost husbands in the war. “Without giving too much away,” Strickland gives away, “Naomi ends up briging Anisah back to her small town in Mississippi.” It’s there that they both encounter love, healing, and, Strickland says, “What it truly means to embrace life in all of its ups and downs.”

Strickland, who has performed as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Seattle Shakespeare Company and as Rose Rose in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of The Cider House Rules Pt. 2, is performing for the first time in her life on Taproot’s stage. “It’s been a great process and, honestly, they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They make sure you feel like you are part of their family from day one.”

The role hit her before she knew it. “It came out of the blue, really,” Strickland says. Some mutual friends put Scott Nolte in touch with her. “I came in to read for him and a couple of days later I got the job!” She’s happy to have taken it. The most rewarding and challenging aspects of the role are one and the same. “We have a great military consult for the show named Erik. Through his stories of life in and out of battle, it’s made me realize what an honor it truly is to tell the story of so many servicemen and women.” She’s proud of her small part in recognizing the hard-working members of military. “We see them. We are grateful.”

What’s next for Strickland? “I can’t really say much but it’s pretty wild!” Suffice it to say, she’s currently doing some motion capture work with green screens and body suits for a video game still in development. Such is the life of an actor: a stranger in a strange land, until it’s not so strange anymore. 

You’ll Suddenly See More of Actor Joshua Carter

“What I love about Seymour,” says actor Joshua Carter, currently starring in Little Shop of Horrors at ACT Theatre, “is the fact that he’s a comedic character that people invariably love who murders two people and allows the world to end.”

Seymour, of course, is the lead character in the show, a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood. Little Shop is billed as a “comedy horror rock musical,” by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman. The musical, in turn, is based on a low-budget 1960 horror film of the same name, directed by the legendary Roger Corman.

The show is weird, what with a sadistic dentist, doo-wop singers and, oh yeah, Audrey II, that giant man-eating plant that talks and sings. It’s just the sort of show Carter loves. “Getting to play all that juicy drama while making people laugh and being a little silly? That’s a gift.”

The show, co-produced with the 5th Avenue Theatre, has already been gifted with rave reviews and Carter couldn’t be more pleased. “Seymour is one of those roles I’ve wanted to play my whole career.” His career in Seattle’s theatre scene is certainly on the rise. He appeared recently in Spamalot at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Mary Stuart at ACT, and has returned from the first national tour of the Broadway hit Once. What’s next for him? He doesn’t know. “Performing Little Shop has been an absolute dream and it’d be a shame if I missed the fun because I was worried about what’s next.”

And so, the present: The main role in a beloved musical comedy. “It’s Faust… with an R&B plant. Seriously.” That’s why the story and the show have stood the test of time, and become a cult favorite. It’s a timeless story, Carter believes, because we all do things for immediate short-term gain without worrying, or even thinking about, the long-term effects of our decision. “We’ve all figuratively sold our souls at some point in our lives. It’s a universal and constant struggle.” That universality connects audiences to Seymour, no matter how many bad things Seymour does. “On top of that,” Carter adds, “It’s just so darn fun!”

Fun, indeed. But it’s a tightrope, oftentimes, for revivals to cater to fans of previous iterations while still keeping the show fresh. In the case of Little Shop, there are plenty of previous iterations to contend with. There was Rick Moranis as Seymour in the 1986 Frank Oz movie. There was the original 1960 movie, where a young Jack Nicholson had a role. There was the original 1982 off-Broadway show starring Lee Wilkof that won awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. “Approach it,” Carter says, “as if it’s never been done before. The folly comes from an attempt at recreation.” By doing it fresh regardless, like in this new production, Carter believes there are new discussions and new discoveries. “It makes the production thrive no matter how many times people have seen it.”

It thrives. With a cast that includes Jessica Skerritt as Audrey, Jeff Steitzer as Mushnik, Eric Esteb as the puppeteer of the plant, Audrey II, and Ekello J. Harrid, Jr. as the voice of Audrey II, the show is full of singing, sweet romance, and murder.

“It’s fun to perform it every night,” Carter says. “I wouldn’t trade a second of it.” Neither would audiences watching Little Shop of Horrors.

Connor Toms on Playing ‘Sociopath’ Victor Frankenstein

For actor Connor Toms, playing infamous literary Doctor Victor Frankenstein is a piece of cake. “All you have to do,” he says, “is live in the mind of a sociopath for two hours a night.” Toms is tackling this demanding role as the lead in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s well-received production of Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus. “Only in theatre,” Toms says, “does someone get the opportunity to be an obsessive genius without literally creating an atomic bomb or a new strain of smallpox or something disastrous like that.”

Frankenstein, for those who may not have read the original book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, isn’t the monster, and certainly not the cartoonish green one we know with the bolts in his neck. No, Frankenstein is young doctor Victor, the man who creates the monster. The novel was published in 1818 when she was 20 years old. The novel deals with monumental and everlasting themes: Is there a God? What happens after death? What is life? Who, in the end, is the monster, the doctor or the creature he created?

“The problem” Toms says of producing work as recognizable as Frankenstein, “is that there are so many unfortunate pre-conceived notions about Frankenstein and artists have to battle with the clichés associated with it or are forced to try and create something new from it.” Fortunately for Toms, and the rest of the cast and crew, they were dealing directly with the source material. “With that,” he says, “one only needs to tell a story.”

Book-It is different than many other theatres in that it preserves the author’s exact words—everything heard on stage is taken directly from the original page. “The glory of Book-It,” says Toms, “is at its most fundamental and basic concept, it’s a vehicle for storytelling. Book-It succeeds in affecting us at our most primitive levels of attention. We all want to be told a good story. It’s great to perform under that conceit.”

The production, which also stars Jim Hamerlinck as the monster and Sascha Streckel as Victor’s love interest Elizabeth Lavenza, is far from disastrous—it’s received largely glowing reviews. It also marks an important transition for Toms himself. “When I heard that Book-It would be doing an adaptation of Frankenstein, I jumped at the chance to audition,” he says. But he never thought he’s land the part of Victor. “It’s a gigantic role and my graduation from young dude to leading man has been rather protracted. I’m very grateful for [director] David Quicksall’s faith in me.”

There’s no question that Toms is officially a leading man. He commands the Book-It stage for nearly the entire length of the two-plus hour production. At turns serious, funny, loving, frightening—it’s a lot for one actor. “The ability to show a disturbing range of emotions is so exciting,” Toms says. “From joy to rage to despair and back again. It’s an exhaustive blessing.”

In addition to becoming a leading man, Toms is also becoming a bit of a workhorse within Seattle’s acting community. Right before taking on the role of Victor Frankenstein he was in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He will soon be seen, with his wife and fellow actor Hana Lass, in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Until then, he will spend his evenings in the skin of a sociopath, who, Toms says, “goes down a serious rabbit hole every night. We’re all pretty blessed performing.” And audiences are blessed to see Toms perform.

It Takes a Village: Why Brian Yorkey Returns Home

Brian Yorkey has come home. In the middle of a flourishing Broadway career, the writer/director has returned to the Village Theatre in Issaquah to direct the award-winning comedy The Foreigner, and he’s delighted to be back. “It’s always a joy to return to Village Theatre, and work with artists who are like family to me,” he says.

Yorkey has been involved with Village Theatre since he was knee high to a grasshopper. In junior high, he was a KIDSTAGE student at the theatre. “They used to let the teenagers take over the theatre to do a musical of our own. It was thrilling,” he says. “And terrifying. And galvanizing. For me KIDSTAGE was about being a part of a community. I practically lived at that theatre.”

He’s lived there, on and off, ever since. His high school job was as Village Theatre’s house manager. After college, he graduated from Columbia University, and went back to Village Theatre as their associate artistic director. During his six-year tenure he also wrote five musicals: Funny Pages (1993), Making Tracks (2002), The Wedding Banquet (2003), Play It By Heart (2005), and A Perfect Fall (2007), before staging Next to Normal. The musical was given a reading at Village Theatre back when it was still called Feeling Electric—eight years before it landed on Broadway and won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

And now, The Foreigner. As associate artistic director, Yorkey lobbied for it every year. And now it’s here, with him in the director’s chair. “I’ve loved the play since I was a kid.” The play, written by Larry Shue, earned two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards as Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. The show centers on Charlie, a man who wants a little peace and quiet. So he goes to a fishing lodge in Georgia and masquerades as a foreigner who can’t speak English. It seems harmless enough, but he soon realizes that people will say the most extraordinary things when they think no one can understand them. Cue the drama and intrigue.

Not only does Yorkey adore this play, he’s not kidding when he says the folks at Village are like family. He’s known Sharva Maynard, who plays Betty Meeks in The Foreigner, since he was 15 years old. Angela DeMarco, who plays Catherine Simms, was in his production of The Importance of Being Earnest years ago. Designers Matt Smucker, Tom Sturge and Melanine Burgess, he says, “are the bee’s knees.”

After The Foreigner wraps up, Yorkey still has plenty going on at the Village. He’s working on a new musical, Jesus in My Bedroom, with Tim Symons, Village Theatre’s resident music director, and Melanie Burgess, costume designer. “We had a reading during the 2013 Festival of New Musicals,” Yorkey says, “and will be doing our second reading at Village this June. We are thrilled that Village has invited us back to develop it further.”

Other developments for Yorkey? Plenty. During The Foreigner‘s run in Issaquah he’s returning to New York City for rehearsals of his next Broadway show, If/Then, starring Idina Menzel, making her Broadway return 10 years after starring in Wicked. He’s also been working with Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan and rock legend Sting on The Last Ship, a Broadway show drawn from the world of Sting’s own childhood. “Sting has written the most exquisite score for it,” Yorkey says. “I can’t wait.”

Despite his soaring career, Seattle theatergoers are lucky that Yorkey is never a foreigner to the Village, no matter how much he has going on. “It was a very special time,” he says, looking back at his days as a kid at Village Theatre, to his time as an artistic director, to the creator of Broadway musicals. Now, he’s creating an equally special experience for audience members.

Director Rosa Joshi’s love of Shakespeare

“I guess I don’t just like Shakespeare,” says Rosa Joshi, director of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s current production of Richard II. “I’m really rather passionate about it.”

Passionate is right. Joshi, who is on the faculty of Seattle University as an Associate Professor of Fine Art (Theatre), has directed 11 productions of 10 different Shakespeare plays.

Her Shakespeare-heavy resume includes directing two all-female productions with upstart crow, a company she cofounded with actors Kate Wisniewski and Betsy Schwartz, which produces shows with all-female casts. The two all-female productions she’s done with the company are King Johnand Titus Andronicus.

“I love the expansiveness of Shakespeare’s world and how it encompasses the whole array of human emotions,” she says, her passion picking up steam. “I love that the world Shakespeare makes is created through language. I love how the richness of the language heightens and intensifies the characters’ emotions and relationships. I love how the plays can veer from the heights of poetic imagination and philosophical inquiry to the most naturalistic of everyday human encounters. And I love the ambition of vision that would let those things live side by side in a work of art.”

Joshi’s own vision turned to Richard II, after Seattle Shakespeare Company artistic director George Mount saw her upstart crow production of Titus Andronicus. They got to talking about how much Joshi loved Richard II, and Mount mentioned that he was already considering it for this year’s mainstage season. “I feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a play I love with such a fantastic company,” she says. 

The play is daunting and not often produced. The history play, written in 1595, is based on the life of King Richard II of England who ruled from 1377 to 1399. The play focuses on the last two years of Richard’s life. Language is more key in this play than in many other Shakespeare works because it is written entirely in verse. Only one other Shakespeare play, King John, is written in verse—a big reason that both plays are more obscure than some of Shakespeare’s beloved classics like HamletRomeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well. But Joshi doesn’t see the form as an impediment. 

“I’m not sure why it isn’t staged as frequently,” Roshi says. “It is a gorgeous play. It’s very moving and combines tragedy and history in a way that I think is really seamless. Richard II is one of the great male roles in the Shakespeare canon.”

For that, she looked to Mount, who is playing the deposed titular king. “He’s committed to the vision and the work,” she says, “so the collaborative process is rewarding.” The work was intense, she says. Hard. “Where you feel like you really accomplished something.”

In addition to the challenge of verse, Richard II also has no big battle scenes. Really, it has little physical action of any kind on stage—another daunting prospect for a director. But she welcomed the challenge, and finds working through it appealing. Through simple yet arresting set designs by Carol Clay and fine actors (Mike Dooly, David Foubert, Reginald Andre Jackson and others take the stage with Mount) it’s the language that Joshi focuses on. “I think some of the most theatrical and moving storytelling can happen when all you have is language and actors on a bare stage.”

At the beginning of February, the stage at Seattle Shakespeare Company will be bare when the production of Richard II ends (The Importance of Being Earnest opens in March). Joshi will return to her academic pursuits at Seattle University. In the spring she plans on directing a production of Charles Mee’s Big Love.

Big love. That’s what Joshi has—for Shakespeare, for language, for theater.

A Crook Turns into Ebenezer Scrooge

“The cold within him,” Charles Dickens wrote, “froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke shrewdly in his grating voice.” That could be none other than Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted, miserly misanthrope at the center of Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol. Peter Crook’s nose isn’t pointed. His eyes aren’t red. His lips are not blue. His voice is rich and resonant. He is an actor though, a long-time fixture in Seattle’s theatre community, so it’s not hard for him to transform into Scrooge most every night this holiday season in ACT’s A Christmas Carol.

That’s not to say Crook doesn’t have big shoes to fill. He does. It is Ebenezer Scrooge after all. On screen the character has been played by the likes of Alastair Sim (Crook’s favorite interpretation), Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Jack Palance, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine and Jim Carrey, and that’s just a handful of the actors who have been visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. There are also the actors who came before Crook at ACT. A Christmas Carol has been going on strong at the theater now for 38 years.  Currently, Crook is sharing the role with ACT’s artistic director Kurt Beattie, who has not only played Scrooge before but has directed ACT’s production of the holiday favorite in the past.

“I can only do it as I can do it,” Crook says. “I have my own life circumstances; my own theater training; my own passions and understandings of life. That makes Scrooge my own.” He talks of the first fitting during rehearsals, trying on coats and hats and frocks that had been worn by Scrooges gone by.  A few Seattle acting legends who have put on those coats, hats and frocks include David Pichette, R. Hamilton Wright, Jack Clay, Sean Griffin and the aforementioned Beattie. With only a three-week rehearsal schedule, the big shoes need to be filled quickly, the coat needs to be quickly thrown over one’s shoulders. “With each performance it’s as if you’re saying the words for the first time. That’s challenging. That immediacy. That need to keep the play newly minted each time.” Crook, now 56, is up to the task.

His acting credits are long. He played Dorn in The Seagull Project’s The Seagull. He’s been in ACT’s Mary Stuart, Book-It Repertory Theatre’s Cider House Rules, and Intiman’s Angels in America. He’s been on Broadway as Mozart in Amadeus and on TV in “Designing Women.”

“It’s a great story,” he says of A Christmas Carol and why it still resonates with us a century and a half after it was written. “It’s full of hope,” he says. “There’s redemption. There’s a reclamation of spirit.” If joy can touch Scrooge, joy can touch us all. “Life is not singular,” Crook continues. “It’s not to be done alone.”

Of course, A Christmas Carol isn’t done by Scrooge alone. The cast and crew bring the story to life every night in the round—Scrooge, the ghosts, Fezziwig and all the rest. Crook hopes it’s a meaningful Christmas tradition for audiences. “Traditions,” he says, “are powerful.” Traditions, he says, “are who we are.”

Hound of the Baskervilles? David Pichette is on the Case

Sherlock Holmes was dead to begin with. His author/creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed him off in 1893 in the story “The Final Problem.” But, after returning to England from a stint in South Africa during the Boer War, Doyle began crafting a novel about an attempted murder in England’s West Country. Was it a man doing the killing or a diabolical hound of supernatural origin? Serialized in Strand Magazine in 1901 and 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles became one of Doyle’s most beloved novels.

A century-plus later David Pichette picked up a pen to revive Sherlock Holmes again. Pichette, a Seattle actor currently playing Fagin in Oliver! at the 5thh Avenue Theatre, began crafting his stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles with writing pal and fellow thespian/playwright R. Hamilton Wright. The adaptation recently had its world premiere at Seattle Repertory Theatre. “When Bob [Wright] and I knew that our adaptation of Double Indemnity was going to be done at ACT, we decided to start another right away, in case Double Indemnity tanked. We pitched the idea of the Holmes story to [SRT artistic director] Jerry Manning, and, to our surprise, instead of throwing us out of their office, they offered us a commission.”

Pichette and Wright are some of the best known stage actors in Seattle today. Pichette has been acting in Seattle for over 30 years; his first performance was at ACT Theatre, playing Odysseus. He recently played Major-General Stanley in the 5thh Avenue Theatre’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Wright has been a professional actor for 35 years, with over 50 productions at Seattle Rep. He also recently directed the world premiere of Assisted Living at ACT and, with Pichette, adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity to sterling reviews.

How does one take Holmes from the page to the stage? Carefully. “The trick is to remain absolutely true to the spirit of the material and the voice of the author,” Pichette says, “but to remember a play has very different requirements from a novel.” Stylistic roadblocks included the fact that Doyle’s book has long stretches of little or no dialogue, and that in the original story the villain is revealed three quarters of the way through the book rather than at the end. The setting itself was a huge challenge—how do you create the vast, creepy expanse of the English moors on a stage? “The challenges were myriad,” Pichette says, “with demands for locations, swift movement and a spectral dog, but the Rep successfully met all of them.”

While the adaptors retained a great deal of the book’s original dialogue, die-hard Doyle fans will notice that about 80% of what one hears on stage is Pichette and Wright’s creation. They introduced new scenes, shifted others, and borrowed bits from other Holmes stories for the sheer joy of it.

Under the direction of Allison Narver, Pichette and Wright’s adaptation took shape on stage. The cast of the world premiere included Basil Harris as Henry Mortimer, Connon Toms as Sir Henry Baskerville, Andrew McGinn as Dr. Watson and Darragh Kennan as Sherlock Holmes. “Every actor wants to play Sherlock Holmes,” Pichette says. “He’s the best known character in fiction.” 

“From start to finish,” Pichette says of the production, “the staging has been a joy.” Pichette’s not finished yet, undoubtedly. There’s more shows to act in, more productions to star in, more adaptations to dream up. It won’t be hard, in other words, for Sherlock Holmes to find Pichette. He just has to go to a show.