Bo-Nita: A New One-Woman Play at Seattle Rep

Seattle playwright Elizabeth Heffron reveals that coming of age requires a cast of many
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On the title page of her script for Bo-Nita, Capitol Hill-based playwright Elizabeth Heffron describes the work simply as “A Play Performed by One Woman.” Turn the page, however, and the complexity is immediately revealed: Set largely in contemporary St. Louis, the cast of characters includes Bo-Nita (a 13-year-old white girl), Mona (Bo-Nita’s mother), Grandma Tiny (in her late 50s), Gerard (30-something, part Cajun), Leon (40-something, African-American), Colonel T (Mona’s uncle) and Jacque (50-something, Cajun)—all embodied by one woman.

Hannah Mootz, the Magnolia-based actress chosen for this tour de force role, has split into multiple personalities before. For her senior thesis at Cornish College, Mootz, 26, wrote and starred in H’s for Hillary, a one-woman play in which a reality star modeled after Heidi Montag comes out of the television for a conversation with Mootz about her decision to have 10 plastic surgeries in one day. “We were the same age, and I couldn’t understand why someone that young would do that,” Mootz says of her inspiration. Though she’s been performing steadily (with Seattle Shakespeare Company, New Century Theatre Company and others) since graduating in 2011, she says her own solo play was probably the best prep she’s had for her role in Bo-Nita—given the quick transformations required—but this time she’s channeling seven people, of various ages and in various states of dysfunction.

The primary character is Bo-Nita (her name hyphenated because “hyphens are all about hanging on and keeping things together,” her mother says), a straight-talking teenager who reveals her personal narrative in flashbacks (sometimes within flashbacks) to situations involving sexual molestation, a highly unpredictable mother, a protective grandmother and the revolving door of men in her mother’s life who affect her own trajectory, for better or for much worse. But this is no sob story. “Bo-Nita is a very young girl coming of age who doesn’t give any opinion on her situation,” Heffron explains. “She’s not in a place to evaluate it; she’s just in it.”

Heffron, 56, known best for her play Mitzi’s Abortion, says that in an early draft of Bo-Nita, she had multiple actors playing the seven characters, “but it felt too much like a radio play.” She put the piece down for more than a year and when she came back, she says, “It struck me: This is all in Bo-Nita’s voice.” She clarifies that rather than “becoming” all these people, Bo-Nita need only “convey” them in the process of her storytelling. “We don’t have to believe the character is suddenly someone else. She’ll just be acting like them for a little while.”

Still, during the fast-paced arguments and physical altercations, simply switching back and forth between characters seems like a feat of derring-do. But confidence is high. Mootz says when she first read it, she thought, “I have to do this—it felt instinctive; I could see myself performing the play.” Director Paul Budraitis has worked with Annex and Balagan theaters and is making his Seattle Rep debut. Though his prior experience directing solo actors is limited to his own solo show, he’s similarly undaunted by the technical details. “It’s a chorus of voices that one actor has to bring to life,” he says, “but I’m not concerned about that—Hannah has already demonstrated she’s capable.” Budraitis says his focus is on something deeper. “The play has something to say, and I want to make sure that comes across. I want Elizabeth’s ideas to resonate.”

Heffron says Bo-Nita is about “the tenuous nature of what direction people can go in.” Bo-Nita’s story is full of near misses, bad choices and adults behaving very, very badly, but it’s also sprinkled with caring older influences who keep her from slipping off the map entirely. “Bo-Nita needs ‘the village,’” Heffron explains. “All those little advantages—a gifted program at school, a concerned counselor—give her a toehold. But just a breeze one way or the other can determine which way she’ll go.”

“This is the kind of work I’m attracted to,” Budraitis says. “It doesn’t let you off the hook.” He notes that a high point in the action has the feel of an antic farce—Bo-Nita and Mona try to cover up a crime by dressing a dead guy in Grandma Tiny’s belly dancing costume. “You could look at the whole thing that way—a madcap romp with a happy ending and neat resolution,” he says. “But what I love is that Elizabeth doesn’t give us that. Instead, we meet an intelligent, strong-minded young woman, and in the end we realize she’s still got some things to live through.”

Mootz says part of what she loves about the play is that it’s all told through Bo-Nita. “Sometimes she’s such a 13-year-old, other times she’s so profound. She can be so funny, then half a page down, so tragic.” Budraitis agrees that the script’s charm is how it “tiptoes over and back” between the dramatic and comedic. “The play is very human,” he says, “so it’s natural to have it be both funny and serious.”

As for Heffron, her hope is that audiences “let this girl in.” If they can do that,  she says, they’ll be whisked along for the ride. But making a play can be just as tenuous as coming of age. “That’s what’s so great about theater,” Heffron says. “You control as much as you can, but then it’s up to something you have no control over: the audience.”

Bo-Nita

10/18–11/17. Times vary. $30–$65. Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.; 206.443.2222; seattlerep.org

The Must List: Angel Olsen, A Moveable Feast, The Pajama Game

The Must List: Angel Olsen, A Moveable Feast, The Pajama Game

What to do in Seattle in the weeks ahead
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Singer/songwriter Angel Olsen plays the Neptune this Saturday

Must Get Tickets
Angel Olsen
(2/18, 9 p.m.) Asheville, North Carolina-based Angel Olsen’s 2016 third album, My Woman, was recorded as an experiment, the singer/songwriter told Spin, a response to “the complicated mess of being a woman.” A composite of styles ranging from gritty, lo-fi, Kinks-esque pop to somber country noir to the Lana Del Rey-indebted “Intern,” the album was well received by critics, many calling it her best yet. But it’s her voice that occupies the biggest spotlight on it: aching, smoldering vocals somewhere between Sharon Von Etten and Deborah Harry, just as distinctive, just as captivating. Likely SOLD OUT. Neptune Theatre, stgpresents.org

Must Love Paris
A Moveable Feast
(Through April 2, 8 p.m.) Two theatrical venues both alike in vision, full of sound and fury, signifying a delectably entertaining evening of spectacle and dining. And each actor and waiter plays their part. Café Nordo joins forces for the first time with Book-it Repertory Theatre to transport audiences back to 1920s Paris, where Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast comes to life. Audiences will have a dinner date with struggling young Hemingway as he rubs elbows in the salon of Gertrude Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus with the likes of Sylvia Beach, Aleister Crowley, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Watch the literary drama unfold while a four-course meal underscores the action onstage. Prices vary. Book-It Repertory Theatre, book-it.org 

Must Get Fit
JAG x Fitcode Denim Fit Lab
(2/18, 12 p.m.-5 p.m.) A good pair of jeans is hard to find! Enter styling and consulting experts, Styled Seattle, who are partnering with JAG Jeans and Fitcode at Westfield Southcenter’s My Style Suite (Level 1, next to Aveda) to help you find your best fitting pair yet. JAG Jeans offers sizes from petite 0–24W in a variety of cuts, while Fitcode technology helps women find their best fit with a short questionnaire, measurements need not apply. The event includes discounts on JAG Jeans, as well as a chance to schedule a session with a Styled Seattle professional. Best of all, it’s free! westfield.com/southcenter/events/all-events

Must Remember
Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner
(2/17 through 2018) On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones. This cleared the way for the forced removal and internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. The Wing Luke Museum’s new exhibit, Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner, examines the historic and contemporary issues of racism, discrimination and human rights through the artwork of Roger Shimomura and the poetry of Lawrence Matsuda. The show’s goal is to shed a light on injustice that’s inflicted upon American groups who are ethnically, religiously or racially diverse. The time and the players are different but the events of yesterday are eerily similar to today. Times and prices vary. Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, wingluke.org/year-remembrance

Must Pillow Fight
The Pajama Game
(Through 3/5, times vary) A 7.5-cent pay raise is at the center of a conflict between management and the workers in the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in this triple Tony Award winner. A sensational Seattle cast stars in the musical that defined Bob Fosse’s signature style with seductive dance numbers like “Steam Heat” and “Hey There.” You’ll have stars in your eyes. Prices vary. 5th Avenue Theatre, 5thavenue.org