By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The challenge: Take a script about gay penguins, working with not-necessarily-gay penguins and human zookeepers, to save home, hearth, and hearts in a world on the brink of collapse—and make it funny, warm, accessible, and even kid-friendly.
A tall order. But David Hsieh, mastermind of Seattle’s ReAct Theatre, accepted this challenge. AJ Clauss’ “Salty,” playing now through ReAct, and directed by Hsieh, forms one more link in a chain of the man’s work stretching back more than 30 years now. He was only an infant when his parents moved here from Utah, and was determined to make theatre his life’s work after seeing a production in middle school.
Acting in high school productions of such shows as “The Mousetrap,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “The Curious Savage” set him up to learn directing as well. He learned three important lessons early: How to do a lot on a shoestring budget, failure is temporary and instructional, and every person involved in a production is important.
“I started doing drama in high school and continued studying it in college at the University of Washington,” said Hsieh. “I struggled working two jobs to put myself through school. My most influential teachers were Mary Krueger who taught me how to direct, Eve Roberts who taught me how to act, Anne Stewart who taught me how to stage manage, and Bob Hobbs who never accepted me into his class, but who taught me the grace of rejection.”
Always self-enterprising, he set up ReAct in 1993, after a distinguished career of several years doing acting, and sometimes directing, for other people. ReAct didn’t begin with a huge launch. Hsieh noticed a gap in the programming of the Northwest Asian American Theatre, where he acted and volunteered. He offered to help fill that gap, and that spark quickly flared into his own company.
Hsieh discovered “Salty” in a Off-Off-Broadway production, during a visit to New York City. He instantly fell in love with the production and asked the playwright for permission to mount the West Coast premiere.
“It was entertaining, utterly unpredictable,” Hsieh recalled. “And very sweet, in my opinion, in spite of the gloomy topics like global warming, death, and disease. It also showed every aspect of relationships from beginning to end. I love relationship plays.”
He always pushes for a multi-ethnic cast. His current cast includes Varinique Davis, Angela DiMarco, Annelih Hamilton, David Hogan, Lia Lee, Tony Magana, Jr., and Kenon Veno.
Don’t expect a look that’s heavy on penguin makeup, though.
“One of the main points of the play is to show how all species are similar, especially in light of dealing with the effects of Mother Nature brought on by global warming,” Hsieh explained. “The actors are not imitating penguins per se. They’re playing characters that just happen to be penguins, or foxes, or humans.
“Logistically we wanted to go further than the NYC premiere in terms of costuming, so the actors do a lot of switching back and forth between their zookeeper human costumes and their animal ones. I think the solution we designed is effective and enhances the overall look and style of the piece.”
Hsieh would like audiences of all ages to check out the play, but he admits it’s rated PG for what he terms “Adult Penguin.” In other words, “Salty” has some salty language, and parents should be aware of that.
“For some parents, presentation of LGBTQ relationships might be offensive,” Hsieh conceded. “We hope not. Love is love. But from past production experiences, the PG-13 warning is still necessary, otherwise we get letters.”
When asked about the future, Hsieh admits that putting on a new season is always a struggle for ReAct. But he’d like the theatre to have a distinct space of its own to call home, but that’s too expensive for the moment.
“I love working in the theatre and hope to continue to do so, both with ReAct and as a freelance actor and director at other theatres, large and small,” he concluded.
“I think what ReAct does is important, and I’ll continue to push forward as long as I’m able in spite of setbacks and discouragements and whatnot that often comes with the territory.”
“Salty” plays through Aug. 18 at the 12th Avenue Arts Mainstage Theatre, located at 1620 12th Avenue in Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit reacttheatre.org.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.