Three Imaginary Girls

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A fatal physicist, a Hollywood legend, and the freakiest museum ever are part of a mixed bag of new autumn theater offerings

Time does fly. Wasn't it, like, just a minute ago that I was writing about last year's short days, warm natural hues, and crisp new autumn offerings at local playhouses? Seems that way. Well, here we are again, and since I love this time of year so damn much I hesitate even to mention the grumpy mood that sneaks up on some folks as the sunlight wanes. But with a promising Intiman lineup already under way, and new seasons beginning at Book-It, WET, and the Rep, there's really no reason at all to let that Seasonal Affective Disorder get the best of you. Right?

Case in point: The Museum Play, which opened WET's season and which runs through September 25. It's a mildly absurdist piece (has WET ever produced something that couldn't be described as such?) about a natural-history museum worker (Marc Kenison) who agrees to a truly fucked-up plan to hold onto his live-in boyfriend (Lathrop Walker), who has proposed marriage to a rather flighty young woman (Elise Hunt) after realizing he might be bisexual. Add a stridently fierce curator (Mikano Fukaya) and a weird young woman raised in, um, museum captivity (fantastic Patricia Nelson), and you have… well, something.

And it's not at all an unenjoyable something — I mean, the inventive sets and art decoration are nearly worth the price of admission. I just found myself wishing (repeatedly) for something a bit more actor- and audience-friendly (about three fewer cryptic extended monologues would have done that trick) in Jordan Harris' script. Even with the occasional dragginess, though, it's a good opportunity to see the regular troupe of WET players, something I enjoy even when the pieces they're performing aren't the most developed. And I can't imagine anyone not being delighted by the fabulously warped scenes in which characters are gassed and placed into a museum display, willed to sing echoed approximations of prior events as an out-of-tune offstage piano tinks nightmarishly discordant pitches.

You have to admire Museum Play director Marya Sea Kominski for that nice touch, and for the double-duty she pulled to take an acting role in the Intiman's current offering, Moonlight and Magnolias. Especially when the little play she directed is far more interesting than the big one she co-stars in. The director of the latter (Timothy Near) should ask her for some advice.

It's a comedy (word used loosely; I laughed like three times) set in 1939 about the writing of Gone with the Wind, and, according to the press notes, "a behind-the-scenes look at how entertainment, power and politics came together to create one of America's legendary films." Kominski is Miss Poppenghul, the longsuffering and frazzled secretary to David O. Selznick (Tom Beckett, annoying), who has shut down production on the big monster of a film and brought in legendary journalist/playwright Ben Hecht (Peter Van Norden, in fine form) to do a rewrite. Director Victor Fleming (local stage regular John Procaccino), pulled from the set of The Wizard of Oz to take the helm, is also there to join the inanity.

Selznick locks everyone in his office for one week, and the three men (powered by an unending supply of bananas and peanuts… no kidding) fashion a new script, with producer and director acting out all the parts. Think of this promising scenario made frustratingly broad, put in about half of everything that could possibly go wrong, and add an unnecessary extra half-hour of meaningless prattle. Then you have Moonlight and Magnolias. I love a good Hollywood story, but this one joins recent films Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia in the "not quite up to snuff" category.

A separate set of big expectations was set by the new Empty Space Theatre over the summer with Lauren Weedman's ingenious Bust, so I naturally approached ES's new play with a bit of trepidation. I needn't have worried, because Louis Slotin Sonata succeeds brilliantly on every level — flawless acting, tight direction, awe-inspiring art/lighting/sound design — and achieves a state of quality very rare for local theater. Indeed, it surpasses every expectation, challenges its audience by creating new ones, then effortlessly bests those as well. What a thrill.

Here's a bit of background on the title character. On May 21, 1946, nuclear physicist Louis Slotin ran a test on the plutonium core of an early atomic bomb, an experiment he'd performed many times before, often pushing safety limits to attain better data. This time a freak accident resulted in the core going "critical" and zapping him with a dose of radiation that killed him after nine days of increasing agony. Several observers were also exposed but survived, mainly because Slotin's body absorbed most of the radiation; today he's largely regarded a hero.

Paul Mullin's play, inspired by the sonata allegro form of classical music (you'll understand the title better when you see it), traces the scientist's last days. Paul Morgan Stetler is absolutely brilliant as the diminishing Slotin, holding together what will become a frenzied array of characters and ideas, all the while superbly conveying the intelligence, wit, and heartbreak that must have been Louis Slotin. The critical moment of the accident is examined, and re-examined, through words and video and music as Slotin's inner world becomes ever less reliable. Each of ten amazing actors (you'll swear there're more) plays multiple roles, and every character involved offers a unique perspective on the man and the incident.

The production values alone are worth an entire review. I won't give away much, but some of the buzz-inducing visual treats offered by the creative forces behind Louis Slotin Sonata are: stationary glow-in-the dark spheres that seem to hover above a darkened theater floor; an out-of-nowhere musical number that's like Dr. Strangelove meets Triumph of the Will meets Cabaret; and a Southern-accented, white-suited Lord God bellowing life-or-death demands while ensconced bravely in front of a giant American flag. It all makes for a funny, sad, mind-bending, and occasionally terrifying piece of theater. Don't miss this one, kids.

I'll just have to do my best not to expect similar theatrical miracles from the two season premieres I'll attend this week (wish I had time to review 'em), beginning with the Rep's Doubt, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, described as "a riveting exploration of paranoia and suspicion in the Catholic Church."

And if the terms "paranoia", "suspicion", and "Catholic Church" seem pretty much synonymous these days, keep in mind that Doubt takes place in 1964. The plot involves a parochial grammar school, the possible misbehavior of a popular parish priest, and a staunch nun/principal who gets word of an odd incident between the priest and a student. Can't wait to witness that (un)holy drama unfold.

Then Broken For You, Book-It's take on the acclaimed first novel by local author Stephanie Kallos, about a wealthy Seattle septuagenarian
named Margaret and the feisty young boarder she takes in.

Have you read it? Booklist said: "…the clever plot and luminous characters are not all that place this novel at the head of the class. Ghostly characters only Margaret sees and heaps of broken porcelain provide powerful metaphors for the sins of the past and the need for personal sacrifice." Other reviewers have compared Kallos to Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and (wow) Tennessee Williams.

Based on past experience (Book-It rarely makes a misstep, and previous Seattle-set offerings have been unexpectedly strong), I predict that Broken For You will be like a sweet breath of crisp, autumn-scented air.