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Friday, September 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

A tale of tragic fate that spans the decades

Seattle Times theater critic

Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-honored novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" came out in 1927. It is set in colonial 18th-century Peru. And it has nothing to do with political terrorism.

Yet in spite of all that, it still makes perfect sense that Strawberry Theatre Workshop is marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks with a dramatization of the book.

Enacted by humans and puppets, the play is quite uneven in its world-premiere outing. The actors are dexterous, and the puppets (manipulated by black-clad puppeteers, Bunraku-style) are vivid and animated. But Greg Carter's script, particularly the first half, can be prosaic to the point of turgidity. The second act is livelier and more engrossing.

Shortcomings aside, the theater's impulse — to try to make sense of tragic fate, to distinguish the individual lives lost in a lethal disaster — gives Wilder's novel a sense of timelessness and an applicability far beyond its geographic setting. (The book reportedly had a direct influence on John Hersey's "Hiroshima," an account of the first A-bomb attack.)

Directed on an open stage by Sheila Daniels, with nuanced lighting by Robert Aguilar, the show portrays the intersecting sagas of five people who have perished in the collapse of a bridge.

The only witness, Brother Juniper (played by John Farrage), devotes himself to learning about the dead — and searching for meaning in their lives, their seemingly random deaths and their troubled loves. (Wilder did something similar for a group of New Englanders in his later play, "Our Town.")

Pointedly, the bridge victims all appear as puppets. Designed by Katie Hansen, the beautifully made doll-like figures vary in scale, which lifts them out of realism and into folklore.

Theater review


"The Bridge of San Luis Rey," adapted by Greg Carter from the Thornton Wilder novel and staged by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 8, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; $20 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com; information, www.strawshop.org).

The human performers embody the story's other major characters. The sensuous actress Camila Perichole, who in the story has a potent effect on others, is played with great flair by Tracy Repep. She transforms from starry-eyed youth to alluring diva to humbled, grieving mother.

Timothy Hyland also impresses as the adventurer trying to aid Esteban (a puppet, voiced by Farrage), whose presence on the failing bridge is keenly ironic.

Hana Lass voices the Marquesa, a puppet grand dame whose gossipy letters and unreturned love for her daughter are key components of the tale. Amy Thone, as a caring Abbess, rounds out the cast.

The show has live music, plaintively performed by singer-guitarist Rick Miller. It's a bit jarring to hear contemporary songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Lift Me Up" and "My City of Ruins" in this context. They are affecting nonetheless.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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