Harlequin plans improv

February festival devoted to comedy style isn’t the only surprise this season

Contributing writerDecember 6, 2013 

Harlequin Productions’ “Stardust Christmas Blizzard” continues through this month at State Theater in downtown Olympia.

COURTESY PHOTO

The biggest news about Harlequin Productions’ season this year isn’t part of its regular season: The company is starting an improv troupe.

The troupe will perform on six Wednesday nights throughout the season, beginning with an Improv Festival on Feb. 12.

For a theater company known for a mixture of new plays, classics and mostly original musicals, improv might seem a surprising choice.

But it fits with the spirit of Harlequin: Enthusiasm carries the day.

“We’re looking for work that strikes a chord and makes us say, ‘Wow! We really like this,’” managing artistic director Scot Whitney said.

Busy with other things, Whitney at first had little interest in Harlequin development manager Mark Alford’s idea to start an improv troupe.

Then he saw Alford and friends — including Harlequin regular Christian Doyle, whom Whitney calls “arguably the improv guru of South Puget Sound” — perform 10 minutes of improv at a fundraiser.

“It was so good,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Other people’s enthusiasm can spark shows, too.

The theater began its season last week with “The Stardust Christmas Blizzard,” powered by the enthusiasm of longtime fans of the holiday tradition. After a hiatus last season, the long-running series is “back by popular demand,” artistic director Linda Whitney, Scot Whitney’s wife, said.

The story is the same for the rest of the season’s shows. Someone was excited to talk about each one:

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”: The one-woman show written for and made famous by Lily Tomlin might seem a surprising choice, and in fact Harlequin has only once before featured a one-person show in its regular season. However, it was a show that Seattle actress Terri Weagant was eager to do, and Scot Whitney was equally eager to work with her.

“She’s an amazing actress,” he said. “She’s done some just radically different and always brilliant work.

“She’s got a personality the size of Alaska.”

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”: Linda Whitney has long wanted to direct the Tennessee Williams classic, and she decided this was the year to tackle it. “She just said: ‘I’m doing it. That’s it. I’m not waiting anymore,’” Scot Whitney said.

“Fighting Over Beverley”: Since 2009’s “Sins of the Mother,” work by playwright Israel Horovitz has become a staple at Harlequin. Horovitz works with Scot Whitney and the cast on each production and usually visits during the run to see the show and answer questions from the questions.

“Beverley,” a romantic comedy about a senior citizen love triangle, has a different flavor than the Horovitz plays Olympia theatergoers have seen thus far. In a review in the Boston Phoenix magazine, Carolyn Clay called the play “a daring mix of emotional yearning and farce.”

Why this particular play? “I’ve read lots and lots of his plays,” Whitney said, “and this was one that really stood out as a wonderful story.”

“A Rock ’n’ Roll Twelfth Night”: Whitney and his brother Bruce Whitney, Harlequin’s music director, put their own spin on Shakespeare in summer of 1997 with the creation of this production.

Scot Whitney rediscovered his enthusiasm for the show when Bruce Whitney and Doyle performed some songs from it at a house party a while back.

“I was shocked at how wonderful the songs were,” Scot Whitney said, imitating his own reaction: “‘What a great song! I wrote that? How did I do that?’”

“Middletown”: The Harlequin website describes the play as “Our Town” in the time of “Waiting for Godot.” Aaron Lamb, who directed last season’s “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” proposed the project. “We loved his work,” Whitney said. “We said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

“Clybourne Park”: The show, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, tells two stories about the same house in Chicago. In the first act, it’s 1959, and neighborhood leaders are trying to stop the sale of the house to an African American family. In the second act, a white couple is seeking to buy and replace the house, while the community is battling gentrification.

“I got the script and I read it and just said, ‘OK, I’m doing this show, period,’” Whitney said. “This is the best thing I’ve come across in several years.”

Harlequin Productions season

Current production: “The Stardust Christmas Blizzard,” with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday plus Dec. 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28, 2 p.m. Sunday plus Dec. 15, 22 and 24; and 7 p.m. Dec. 31

The rest of the season: “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” the one-woman comedy Jane Wagner wrote for Lily Tomlin (Jan. 23-Feb. 15); “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” by Tennessee Williams (March 6-29); “Fighting Over Beverley,” by Israel Horovitz (May 1-24); “A Rock ’n’ Roll Twelfth Night,” an original musical comedy, with apologies to William Shakespeare (June 19-July 20); “Middletown,” a comedy by Will Eno (Aug. 21-Sept. 13); and “Clybourne Park,” a comedy by Bruce Norris (Oct. 2-25)

When: Evening shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: For plays, $31 for adults, $28 for seniors and military, $20 for students; for musicals, $38 for adults, $35 for seniors and military, $25 for students and those younger than 25. Discounted rush tickets are available 30 minutes prior to curtain, and pay-what-you-can shows happen on the first Wednesday after opening weekend.

Season tickets: $157-$185 for the full seven-show package, $118-$199 for flex passes that allow you to choose available seats for any performance of four, six or all seven productions.

More information: 360-786-0151 or harlequinproductions.org

Also: Harlequin is starting an improv troupe this year. The first event will be a festival featuring several regional improv groups set for 8 p.m. Feb. 12. Tickets are $15-$25, $15-$20 for subscribers.

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