Monday, July 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

Java Tacoma serves up luke-warm show

Staging locally written plays can get tricky. Sure the "buy local" vibe carries a bit of Tacoma pride and the shows always have inside jokes and local references have audiences connect with the actors and the script. But that only carries a show so far. 

“Java Tacoma: Episode 38,” written by Federal Way playwright Curtis B. Swanson, is an example of that. This is the second installment of the series that kicked off last year with “Java Tacoma: Episode 37.” The numbering system allows Swanson to create prequels and sequels out of order as a way to create a framework for episodes to come.

This installment centers on lifelong friends who hang out at Perky’s Coffee House in much like the sitcom "Friends" did back in the day. They sip caffeine and banter their days away until they learn the java joint has lost its lease. That news sends the team into action to save their favorite spot. Comedy ensues. 

But it just didn't seem polished enough for prime time.

The first trouble with the show is the script itself. It was overkill with the local references. I mean really, how often do you and your friends talk about every local landmark bar, business and inside joke you know about the 253? This show mentions every business in the phone book. Dialing back the local references a bit would go a long way because the hour-long play seemed more like a party full of name droppers than casual conversation between friends.

I appreciate the effort however, I just wanted more. Since the show is a modern vaudeville show with actors breaking through the fourth wall of theater by both talking to the audience with asides and making references to their actions by saying "It's right there in the script," I wished it was more dynamic. With a stage only about 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide, the actors should have used the intimate setting to their advantage. Whispers should have actually been whispers and yelling should have rattled the walls. But this show had a volume range between five and seven, when the vaudevillian tradition calls for everything from a low rumble one to a "This is Spinal Tap" 11 on the speakers. As staged, the show had the vocal and acting range of a Barry Manilow Christmas album. The acting wasn't bad. It just failed to span the full range of the human experience or match the goofy storyline it was tasked to tell.

The motions by the actors could have varied more, much more. The show seems to have been staged for a larger stage that requires larger motions to be seen from the back rows of more traditional theaters. But this stage sits only inches from the audience, making large gestures seem out of place. How many people pour coffee with their forearms parallel to the floor, for example? No one other than actors on a stage well removed from their audiences do that, but in this show there it was. 

The outrageous premise of the script would naturally call for some large motions here and there, but pouring coffee isn't one of them. 

The could-be series is at the heart of Dukesbay Production's mission of providing local playwrights an outlet, which is a noble cause.

"The need for original works was more of an internal drive on our part," founder Aya Hashiguchi Clark said. 

Her husband Randy was a volunteer with the South Sound Playwrights Festival before that effort died several years ago and is currently on the board of directors at Tacoma Little Theatre. With the SSPF died and the similarly focused Northwest Playwrights Alliance moving from Tacoma to Seattle a few years ago, local playwrights have had no venue to debut their works. So Dukesbay was born, although it has no plans produce festivals at this point. The effort wants to stay small and focused on providing local playwrights ways to see fully-staged runs of their works.

"We chose Trinity Presbyterian as our venue because it is small and intimate for the audience," Clark said. "The design of the room also lends itself well to creating theatre. Our bar for success is very attainable: our house only fits 30 to 40 people, so we will "sell-out" the house much easier than if we had rented a 200-seat auditorium."

But that sell-out status might create for a false sense of success. Selling out 40 seats during a short run means a large portion of the audiences are friends and family of the cast and crew, much like a middle school talent show. Sustaining that level of success with the addition of another two performances would be unlikely.

Now, don't get me wrong. The show was generally fun. There were no glaring errors non-theater geeks would be too bothered by. But a few additions or changes would have made the show sparkle. Extending the script to at least an hour and a half could make the "night at the theater" more meaty. Toss in an intermission after act one and maybe a talk-back feature at the end to field audience questions and comments to allow the script to evolve and that would be money well spent. But a ticket price of $15 for a seat in an hour-long show will likely leave most theater goers wanting more. Granted, I got press comped my seats, but I still wanted more. 

“Java Tacoma: Episode 38” plays Nov. 12, 18, and 19. Trinity Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall is located at 1619 6th Ave. Curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and include your choice of coffee, tea and an assortment of baked goods to enjoy during the show. For reservations (highly recommended) call (253) 267-0869 or e-mail Tickets payable at the door, cash or check only. Visit