Pinter and Pratfalls

Lowbrow in high style.

SPEECHLESS

Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont N., 325-6500, $15-$19 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sun. ends Sat., Aug. 24

A pair of mafioso catwomen tie Ian Bell to a chair near the end of this new sketch comedy show from Bald Faced Lie, then leave him alone in a room with a battery-operated pig. It's seriously whacked—and you won't bat an eye.

The title is Speechless, not Silence. It's a play about people who groan, burp, scream, laugh— everything, in fact, except speak English. (They do speak other languages; the show begins with a Spanish introduction, and there's a brief spate of pseudo-French.) You will find no plot here. No characters, either. Instead, you'll find a dying clown and a few naked people. It's that kind of show.

I've heard murmurs from Very Serious Theatergoers who find Speechless "juvenile," even compare it to children's theater. And, yes, with its litany of pratfalls and nose pickings, the show sometimes errs on the side of broadness. But it owes no debt to Charlotte's Web; more than anything, it's a throwback to old-fashioned absurdism, with some banana peels thrown in for good measure.

After all, the absurdists took their cues from the vaudevillians, and the vaudevillians understood why we want to laugh in the first place. (It ain't because we're happy.) I'm thinking specifically of Harold Pinter, who knows more about silence than any other playwright and whose Revue Sketches are similar in spirit to Speechless. Sure, Pinter hedges his silence with words, but his comedic taste, like Bald Faced Lie's here, is based on repetition and futility, where the punch line unravels everything instead of tying it all together.

This isn't to say that Speechless is a total success, or that Bell (the "curator" of the troupe) is the new Harold Pinter. It is a very accomplished show, though—an indelicate balance between outlandish sight gags and Bell's unnerving, deadpan slyness. When the play falters, it falters on the side of convention or redundancy. (I'm thinking especially of an overlong tango sequence, which takes a ho-hum idea and beats it to a bloody pulp.)

The cast is just fine, though Speechless is a very impersonal show. Its main concern is comic effect and the technique used to produce it; the actors, bless them, are often stand-ins. The technicians are the real stars here: Since there's no dialogue, many punch lines arise from a lighting cue, a sound, or a prop. The choice of music is so inspired that by play's end, you'll forget that no one's talking—and you'll want to buy the soundtrack.

All of this is a testament to the skill of Bell and his crew, who take a gimmicky concept—Hey, look! Comedy! Without words, even!—and create a world askew. Which is why, when the mafioso catwomen step onto the stage, you'll wonder what took them so long.

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