Shadow puppets, Sarah Rudinoff, and a cute accordionist highlight five big plays (in ten short days)
Fall is here, and what's not to love about these shorter days, warmer natural hues, and crisper air (which sure makes for a delectable sigh of relief from all the noisy-ass children milling about all damn summer)? Sure there's the increased commute time to the U-district on Husky game weekends (to see movies at the Grand Illusion and Varsity, natch), and the Seasonal Affective Disorder that seems to kick in for a good number of PNW inhabitants around this time of year. But, really, those are minor when one really stops to consider all the autumnal goodness to be had.
Oodles of which can currently be found in our local playhouses, with a promising Intiman lineup already under way, new seasons beginning at Book-It and the Rep, and scores of offerings from smaller theaters and troupes. Earlier this month I found myself with a nice lil' stack of invites to new shows, and over the past couple weeks I've enjoyed a mini-marathon of theatrical delights with a few of my closest drama-lovin' pals.
The adventures began with Cathay: Three Tales of China, a visually stunning triptych of stories from Ping Chong and Xi'an's Shaanxi Folk Art Theater, originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center and headed to DC and NYC after its Seattle Rep run in the Leo K Theatre. I wasn't terribly engaged by story 1, "The Lady and the Emperor" (a Tang Dynasty-era tragedy about political uprise and corrupted romance), but the rod-puppetry and opulent production design kept me intrigued. Middle story "Little Worm" (WWII-set existential fable) was by far my favorite, with lovely shadowplay and mixed-media execution that simply blew me away. The final tale, entitled "New", is set in a luxurious modern Xi'an hotel and utilizes both prior formats (plus a few lifesized humans for good, um, measure).
My friend Jill was enchanted by the amazing use of perspective within scene compositions (one of which even allows us to observe the characters from overhead!), and indeed Cathay should be seen for the jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing visual treats — they almost make up for the thin storytelling in "Lady" and "New". (And maybe it had something to do with a snippet of pre-play lobby convo I overheard about Team America: World Police, but I couldn't stop thinking about that movie during those sections … especially the puppet-sex scene between the titular lady and emperor. I am not kidding.)
Next came the Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of brilliant Brit Sarah Kane's typically confrontational Crave. It has nothing at all to do with the popular 12th Avenue eatery, though buddy Graham and his pal Lily and I wished we'd had time to stop by there beforehand; luckily our bellies only had to grumble for a short-n-sweet 60 minutes. And what a compelling, provocative hour it was, with four actors on an obstructed-view stage spouting measured beats of venomous/sorrowful/droll phrases to one another: "I can't stand the smell of my own family." "I was murdered by daytime television." "Sometimes I become alarmed by the shape of my own head." "There are worse things than being fat and fifty." "I have a bad, bad feeling about this bad, bad feeling."
Speaking of, bad feelings obviously infected a few audience members who just couldn't take it and bailed before the halfway point. Kane's work can be distressing, I'll admit, but once the odd rhythm of Crave kicked in I was glad I hung in there. One almost wished, though, for British accents from the performers — a phrase like "smoke some fags" means something entirely different to Yank ears (and from Yank mouths). I wonder if the people who clomped out of the Little Theater (which is looking great these days, by the way) realized that.
"If this makes no sense, then you understand perfectly," says one character early on. An apt summation of the harsh beauty that is Crave.
Sadly, I had to forego the ACLU Uncensored Celebration, an annual evening of dramatic banned-book readings featuring members of the fabulously talented Book-It company. But I heard good things about the event later, and was in for a nice proper dose of Book-It goodness a few days thence with their uneven but entertaining new 400th-anniversary (!) adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. An odd choice for a season opener (and my dear theater companion Kelly concurred), but, really, one is hard-pressed to experience a bad Book-It show.
Inspired by the era's great tales of chivalry, the titular deluded knight-errant (a very good Gene Freedman) sets out upon his mighty steed Rocinante (a Picassian wooden horse) to right wrongs and protect the have-nots of 16th-century Spain. His faithful peasant squire Sancho Panza (Walter James Baker, doing a weird Buddy Hackett impersonation much of the time) accompanies him on his adventures, as Cervantes himself (enthusiastic Wesley Rice) occasionally butts in to provide narration. Noted local artist Fay Jones provided the wonderfully rustic-looking set designs (with backdrops of Quixote and Panza painted by Jones herself).
Until recently I was unaware of the source novel's intriguing history. Cervantes actually began writing it in 1597 while in a Seville debtor's prison, and Part I (which serves as Act I here, a straightforward retelling of the DQ I was vaguely familiar with) came out in 1605. In 1614 a bogus sequel was published, prompting Cervantes to release a poignantly self-aware Part II the following year: it's about a tactless society which now celebrates the famous characters of a best-selling book (DQ part I) and even plots their humiliation after encountering them in real life. There are moments of pomo Book-It bliss in this second half, with the great multi-tasking supporting cast (especially Troy Fischnaller, Rachel Glass, John Bianchi and Rose Cano) and the often despicable characters they bring to life.
I guess Kelly just couldn't get enough embracey, so the following evening she accompanied me to the Seattle Rep and The King Stag, which advanced us a century (18th this time) and moved us East on the Euro-map (author Carlos Gozzi was Italian), and, I must admit, had me worried ever since I read this summary blurb in its press release:
"Welcome to Serendippo, a land filled with magical deer, clever parrots, a giant bear, and hare-brained courtiers. A land where King Deramo desires in his Queen nothing more than a young lady who truly loves him. Thanks to the gift of a magician, he can depend on the uncanny ability of a magic statue to decipher a dishonest heart. But his treacherous Prime Minister Tartaglia hopes to parlay the King's search for love into his own play for power, and devises a sinister plan. The King finds not only his hoped-for Queen, but his very identity, threatened by Tartaglia's devices. Will the power of love be enough to save the kingdom?"
Please understand that my name does not appear on any archived roster of any A/V Club or D&D League, so the above may as well have been in some other language. But reading back over it now after having seen the magnificent play, I'm returned to the state of joyful abandon it brought forth in me. I've been attending Rep productions for nearly five years now, and never before have they shown me a piece of theater there so crisp, alive, and
just plain thrilling. If my space here weren't limited I'd go into great detail about how fucking hilariously, ingeniously bawdy Sarah Rudinoff's character is; about the story's indefinable comedic elements from some alien place and time; about how you forget that the human-sized parrot is in the room; about the way some audience members are part of the play (and actually on the stage throughout). Director/co-adaptor Andrei Belgrader and incoming mainstage programmer David Esbjornson are to be commended for bringing Seattle such a deliriously entertaining modern take on commedia dell'arte; with this play in the Bagley Wright and Cathay in the Leo K., the Rep has kicked off its season, well, fantastically.
Even so, the most out-there one can get is the night sky, which is brought to dazzling immediacy in writer-performers John Kaufmann and Dan Dennis' Starball, now playing in the Smith Planetarium, of all places. It's a smart, lively, unconventional show that's totally worth a schlep to the Space Needle region (and somehow Seattle Center isn't as cheesy and annoying after the sun goes down).
How can I even begin to explain? Well, as Starball's press notes say, it combines live theatre, improvisation, original music, cosmological inquiry and the exploration of human consciousness into an entertaining performance that challenges us to deepen our understanding of the universe. I'll go along with that. I was enlightened, educated, entertained, and totally charmed by the talented performers, with their occasional TMBG-geeky musical breaks (Dennis is a whiz on both accordion and guitar) and commendable improv skills.
The only nit I can pick has to do with much of the show's content being audience-driven — everyone writes down a dream as they enter the planetarium, and a few are randomly selected to brainstorm into new constellations and mythologies. Brilliant idea, but I think we all know that people can be stupid; on the night I attended, one dream ("I am eating cotton candy, and a puppy jumps out of it") merged with another to turn into some silly thing about an evil walking hamburger. Please don't ask me how or why, but the audience was shrieking with glee. And maybe in a different mindset I would've been too, because as I write this (and read over the "certificate of completion" I got at the end) I totally want to giggle. I highly recommend the show for the Dennis' and Kaufmann's engaging exuberance. Just hope your 40 fellow Starballers are worth accompanying on a ninety-minute cosmic journey.