By Billy Thomas
Last Saturday, Harlequin Productions hosted its 2020 season announcement party. Over 200 subscribers, donors, sponsors and guests attended the event, flooding the theater’s lobby and mainstage space. They were greeted by Harlequin board members and staff, including the theater’s artistic director, Aaron Lamb, and managing director Hap Clemons.
Attendees enjoyed live music, bid on silent auction items, sipped specialty cocktails and gnashed on hors d’oeuvres by Dillinger’s Cocktails and Kitchen. Guests previewed a freshly renovated box office and lobby before the mainstage presentation of season 2020.
Season 2020, the production company’s 29th collection of performances, has been named “Transformation,” and it is transformative. Several changes were announced, including the addition of two shows to Harlequin’s season, presented at its original home — The Washington Center for the Performing Arts’ black box theater. Also new for this season were expanded subscription options, including an inventive “Q Pass,” a low-cost, low-commitment subscription for patrons 39 and younger.
Harlequin Productions artistic director Aaron Lamb talked to OLY ARTS about season 2020, saying, “This is indeed an ambitious season, but my philosophy is that if we’re not ambitious about the work we want to do, there’s no real point in doing it.”
The first performance in Transformation is Harlequin’s 2019 holiday show Sherlock Holmes and the Case of The Christmas Carol. Holmes resurfaces after being presumed dead for three years, callous and uninterested in helping those who most need him. In the performance, Seattle playwright John Longenbaugh presents the Great Detective with three spirits from his past, present and future to save Holmes from himself.
Heralded as “the funniest farce ever written” by The New York Post, Transformation’s second show is Noises Off. English playwright Michael Frayn’s play follows a group of actors as they rehearse and perform an imaginary play. In three acts — Act One, Act One and Act One — actors in the imaginary show struggle through nerves, dropped lines, technical difficulties, drunken cast members and misplaced sardines, all for the saw that “the show must go on.”
In an homage to hyper-local theater, Transformation’s third performance is a production of Olympia author Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide, adapted for the stage by Jane Jones. This coming-of-age piece follows 13-year-old Miles O’Malley as he explores the tidal beaches of Puget Sound, making waves with an unexpected discovery that launches him to local celebrity. During the announcement, Lynch was invited on stage to talk about the adaptation, saying he was “extremely proud to present this work on the Harlequin stage.”
The fourth performance in Transformation is the first performance at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts’ black box. For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, by Sarah Ruhl, is a comedy-drama centering around the ideas of family, death and never growing up. Following the death of her father, Ann reminisces about her days of playing Peter Pan in children’s theater in her hometown in Iowa. That sparks a conversation between five siblings.
In a striking drama from Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, Transformation’s fifth performance, A Bright Room Called Day, introduces the audience to a group of artists and activists in 1930s Berlin. The group struggles to preserve itself against the atrocities of war and fascism. The show offers stark and discomforting similarities between the height of Nazi Germany and modern-day America. Kushner’s script Angels in America was presented at SPSCC’s Kenneth J Minnaert Center last November.
With a Tony Award for best original score and two for best musical revival, Transformation’s sixth performance is Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. The epic, musical fairy tale brings the brothers Grimm onstage, following Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his magic beans, Rapunzel and others as they venture deep into the woods. The woods are mysterious and magical, filled with witches, wolves and enigmatic strangers who grant wishes at a price.
Transformation’s sixth performance transports the audience to a faraway land in Snow in Midsummer. Frances Ya-Chu’s adaptation of Guan Hanqing’s classical Chinese drama The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth was first produced as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Chinese translations project and later at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play follows young widow Dou Yi, executed for a murder she didn’t commit. Dou returns as a vengeful spirit set on exposing her injustices.
The intense, dramatic commentary continues with Transformation’s seventh performance, the second to be presented at The Washington Center black box: This Flat Earth. In the original work by Lindsey Ferrentino, an ordinary middle school in an ordinary seaside town is suddenly rattled by horrific, yet tragically common gun violence. Two students, Julie and Zander, struggle to make sense of the incident and why grown-ups seem to be doing nothing to solve the violence the two witnessed.
The season’s tone is lifted with a musical comedy for Transformation’s eighth performance. Fun Home, by playwright Lisa Kron, is a winner of five Tony Awards including best musical. The theme centers around seeing one’s parents through grown-up eyes. Alison, a graphic novelist who grew up in a funeral home run by her family, revisits her past to tell the story of her recently deceased father. His personality and secrets defined her life.
The final performance in Harlequin’s season of transformation is 2020’s holiday show, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens but freshly adapted for Harlequin’s stage by Aaron Lamb. The performance will be full of traditional, holiday cheer with such familiar characters as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The stage itself will be transformed into a theater in the round, showcasing the performance from all angles.
Nine challenging, exciting shows weren’t all Harlequin announced Saturday. At the beginning of the presentation, prior to announcing Transformation’s shows, Harlequin board president Jeff Trinin and vice president Janet Mueller welcomed guests and introduced several theater staff members. Ashley Chandler, operations director, explained season 2020’s new calendar-year schedule and a change from 8 p.m. performances to 7:30. Olivia Burlingame, box-office manager, explained ticket options and new opening nights. Amy Shephard, sales coordinator, highlighted an upcoming education program. Helen Harvester, marketing director, explained new subscription offerings. Then Hap Clemons, managing director, explained philanthropic options before Lamb presented the season. The order of staff who took the stage felt deliberate. The sense of women’s empowerment and authority in the theater was palpable.
At the end of the season presentation, Joe Hyer, finance director, took the stage to explain Harlequin’s administrative changes. He began by announcing as of April 2019, the theater has entered into a small, professional theater contract with Actor’s Equity Association and will employ a mix of union and non-union artists in every production. Hyer also announced that since January 2019, Harlequin actors’ compensation had increased by 50 percent per individual. Later, when asked about this change, Hyer told OLY ARTS, “we want to take the ‘starving’ out of ‘starving artist.’ ”
When asked about the tumultuous journey that led to 2020, Lamb said it wasn’t over. “There are many challenges ahead for us,” he acknowledged, “from casting to production, but we’re excited and organizing ourselves in a way so we’re ready to tackle all of them. Challenges just make us work harder.”
Subscriptions to Harlequin Productions’ 2020 season are available now at the State Theater box office or the production company’s website. The first show in Transformation opens November 27, 2019.
Harlequin Productions season 2020: Transformation
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol: Nov 27-Dec. 31, 2019
Noises Off: Jan. 15 – Feb. 8, 2020
The Highest Tide: Feb. 26 – March 21, 2020
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday: April 2-19, 2020
A Bright Room Called Day: April 29 – May 23, 2020
Into the Woods: June 17 – July 18, 2020
Snow in Midsummer: Aug. 19 – Sept. 12, 2020
This Flat Earth: Sept. 3-20, 2020
Fun Home: Sept. 30 – Oct. 24, 2020
A Christmas Carol: Nov. 25 – Dec. 31, 2020
Evening performances 7:30 p.m., select matinées 2 p.m.
Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia