A darker shade of pale

Kevin Joyce's enigmatic trio of characters lives again.

In today's world, it's not difficult to find something disturbing. From ethnic cleansing to serial killers, the media is filled with examples of the bizarre and sad state of the human condition.

But when was the last time something disturbed you and made you laugh at the same time?

A Pale and Lovely Place

ACT, Bullitt Cabaret

ends April 11

Since his first appearance at 1996's Seattle Fringe Festival, Kevin Joyce has been doing just that with his solo show A Pale and Lovely Place. It's a visit with three odd characters who inhabit a world that's partly nostalgic, partly creepy, and altogether fascinating, a show that asks the audience to participate by buying a particular bill of goods known as "the Covenant."

It all started with the title of the show. "It came to me driving to the airport one day," says Joyce, co-founder of Seattle's lauded UMO Ensemble. "I had to fill out this application for the festival in September 1995, so I needed to put down something, and this phrase just fit. It seemed related to the music and era that was fascinating me, that of Big Band and swing, and the voice and persona of Bing Crosby."

Outfitted with a title and a vague sense of time and place, Joyce began writing. "It seemed to just flow out without a lot of conscious attention to what was going on. It's as if someone else wrote it. The title's pretty much out of left field, and I think I described it originally without really knowing what it was going to be. But in the course of the next three months, I did a series of sporadic automatic writings. Then I took them wholesale and put them in an order. I didn't really edit at all, and the result is something that's not precisely nonsense, but is sort of cliché­²ich, mixing metaphors in a way that's not strictly logical but is certainly disturbing."

Much of the piece concerns the relationship that the salesman of the trio, whom Joyce calls "the Charmer," builds up with the audience, entertaining, promising, and offering what the performer calls "his own particular brand of snake oil," the Covenant. "The Covenant is a collection of observations regarding the precious nastiness of being alive, the terror of annihilation, the need to survive, the petty and real violence we make on other people or on ourselves."

The other two characters, whom Joyce refers to as "the Announcer" and "Hunter," are also involved in communicating to the audience, albeit without the Charmer's expressive showmanship. The Announcer, who speaks with a voice "somewhere between Rod Serling, a filmstrip narrator, and a prerecorded announcement," is the voice of comfort, news, and information. If the Charmer, with his chirpy but dark songs, his white suit and vaudevillian grins, is reminiscent of the past, the Announcer speaks with the tranquility of a speaker from the future, narrating events in an orderly context like a trusted newscaster.

Squeezed between these two figures is the small, scared voice of Hunter. "He's the pale character, the one who lives in the shadows, and who speaks in a psychotic and neurotic disarray," says Joyce. "He's trying to tell the truth to the audience, however he can. He lives in the present, right here, with the audience."

If all of this sounds esoteric, it shouldn't. Because while A Pale and Lovely Place is concerned with some dark and worrying material, it's also very funny, filled with odd bits of audience participation, skewed stories, and songs that are like a Gahan Wilson cartoon set to music. Joyce and his director Kevin Kent are excited about presenting the show in the Bullitt Cabaret, which is something of a Pale and Lovely Place itself. "It's got those wonderful ornate banisters, that sweeping staircase, those pillars. Our first instinct was to try to re-create a black box, a neutral environment, but with some cajoling and encouragement from [ACT], it's become a matter of trying to see what's possible. It's our chance to make the Pale and Loveliness much more pervasive, something that encloses the audience in a slightly disconcerting embrace." At that thought, the expressive smile of the Charmer momentarily flits across Joyce's face.

 
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