IT WAS, I BELIEVE, British comedian Peter Cook who once remarked that he didn't want sex and violence on the stage when he could get them in his own home. There is usually something deeply embarrassing about live performers trying to be sexy. Shorn of film's music, special lighting, and body doubles, the naked or near-naked human body onstage looks vulnerable, flawed, awkward.
Northwest Actors Studio, ends July 29
Which is made clear early on in Burnt Studio Productions I.S.O. (In Search Of. . .), a movement-based theater piece that premiered back in February at the Seattle Fringe Festival and now gets a summer remount in the sweaty confines of the Northwest Actor's Studio. ("Sweaty" is no hyperbole; the small black box on the building's third floor picks up a lot of heat during the show's 50-minute running time, and its four performers work up a truly healthy perspiration by the show's end.)
The way this show begins, you might think you're in for an irredeemably sleazy time. To the strains of Nine Inch Nails' Closer to God, the three women and one man of the company gyrate in best stripper fashion, pulling off first shirts, then pants, then T-shirts, then . . . the music stops. They freeze, on the brink of full exposure. Without the blaspheming beat, the low lighting, they look, well, silly. They grin sheepishly and retreat back into the darkness.
AND SO THE SHOW goes. The piece's title refers to the personal ads that fill the back pages of certain alternative weekly papers, in which the particular sexual tastes of individuals are given in lists, along with requirements demanded from potential partners. (Several of these bizarre epigrams of desire and perversion are read during the show.) But it also describes the inevitably interrupted quest for sexual fulfillment in a society that effectively slaps down and redirects eroticism whenever it spontaneously arises. In an early scene, a teacher plays a sex-education film for a group of bored students. Whenever they try to touch themselves, a sharp crack from her stick knocks their hands to their sides.
A lot of material is crammed into this short show, some of which, like a quick homage to '70s porn, is very funny. But almost always the charming and amusing turn dark and threatening. All of the performers move well, particularly codirectors Samuel Read and Michelle Lockhart (whose sweet, toothy gangliness makes an intriguing counterpoint to her sexiness), but not with the honed skill or athleticism of professional dancers. The less-than-perfect bodies are part of the company's strength. In one very smart scene, Read and Lockhart begin a romantic embrace, only to be repeatedly interrupted by bursts of enthusiastic narration about exotic beaches and supermodels. Disappointed by the reality before them, they shrug and part.
While the piece does build toward a climax—a sadomasochistic ravage that turns from make-believe violence to something more sinister—it still remains more of a scattered meditation on sex rather than a cohesive whole. But the potency of some of its moments, and its constant tension between the seductive lure of sex and the immediate awkwardness of live naked bodies in a small room, make it something worth leaving your home for. Even if you've got plenty of that waiting for you this evening.