Brief Encounters

Project X, Joe Shmoe, and Voyage Of The Beagle

Project X: Before The Comet Comes

The Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., 206-547-7500. $10-$40. 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sat., May 31.

Nikki Appino has something to say about the world in her new piece; unfortunately, it's not enough. Project X finds Seattle's experimental writer/director ruminating on private and public catastrophes, trying to find the revelatory points at which they intersect. That's a brave, big bite to take, but Appino's script leaves the production with nothing to sink its teeth into.

Nick Garrison and Gina Malvestuto play siblings barely stifling their pain around the deathbed of their mother (Marianne Owen) in a hospital on New Year's Eve 1999. Meanwhile, their daft father (Todd Jefferson Moore) is holed up in his apartment with a multitude of TVs ranting into his video camera about the threat of Y2K.

It's a smart premise, and there are glimpses of universal fear and yearning on a collision course with a kind of comic, personal despair. Just as daughter Malvestuto is obsessing over a potential breakup with her girlfriend while her mother lies dying, so, too, is father Moore obsessing over what he sees as the breakdown of the entire planet. Composer Robin Holcomb's lovely live piano accompaniment provides effective ornamentation, as does the clever use of video: Moore listens to Tom Brokaw in Times Square declaring that "there has never been such peace and prosperity in the world"; the family watchesand appears insurreally funny versions of psychic infomercials.

But the text, more often than not, is limp and stilted. Garrison and Malvestuto are stuck with embarrassingly thin squabbles over who has been the best caregiver, Owen "wakes up" occasionally to play the ever-eccentric maternal figure, and the dark family incident that left Moore estranged is dramatically puerile. You can see visions of the coming apocalypse here, but you don't ever really feel them. STEVE WIECKING

Joe Shmoe

Northwest Actors Studio, 1100 E. Pike St., www.thehabit.org. $11. 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; also 11 p.m. Sat. Ends Sat., May 31.

Or, How I Went From Bored to Hostile in Under 90 Minutes.

Sketch comedy must be brief and zany, in that order of importance. Joe Shmoe is neitherthe pacing is glacial, the humor earthbound, the direction lazy. I doubt you'll be amused.

Written by Jeff Schell, David Swidler, and Steve Unckles, the piece lands on a premise we've seen before: Heaven is a vast bureaucracy, and one poor soul must suffer because of too much celestial red tape. In this case, our hero is Joe, an alarmingly bland fellow who's on track for a catastrophic nervous breakdown. As he encounters passive-aggressive hostility from his co-workers, his boss, the girl at the car rental counter, and many others, he tumbles into a state of agitation and despair. So, I'm afraid, does the audience when we realize that every scene is three times longer than necessary.

I tried to like this show. During the first act, as each gag played and overplayed to an increasingly silent audience, I just twiddled my thumbs, waiting for an inspired moment. The cast seemed like a fine bunch of people, after all, and I wanted to laugh. But after the gazillionth kooky character with a kooky mannerism appeared onstage to do something kooky over and over again in slow motion, I got really cranky. Comedy is tough, sweaty work, but it's precise work, too, and there's no precision here. Even the cast appears bored by the end"comedy, shmomedy." I know how they feel. CHRIS JENSEN

Voyage Of The Beagle

The Little Theatre, 610 19th Ave. E., 206-219-3161. $7-$12. 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. every Sat. Ends Sat., May 31.

Though composer Herbert Bergel's new mini-rock opera is full of infectious, "Look, Ma! I'm dancin'!" frivolity, and director Tricia Rodley lends it some makeshift charm, the level of invention in his songcraft indicates thatlow budget or noBergel should find somebody who can give his productions a higher level of polish.

Beagle does go a long way on its loopy happiness. The plot, inspired by Charles Darwin's titular journals, concerns two modern-day Norwegian nurses (Rodley and a very sweet Tina Kunz) and their ambitious young naturalist roommate (Stephen Hando) who embark on a voyage with an indecipherable sea captain (Bergel himself, playing guitar accompaniment). Don't look too closely or you'll go cross-eyed; relax into its playtime mode and send me an e-mail with a plot synopsis if you figure it out.

The main reason to experience it is Bergel's lyrical irreverence and kicky '60s Britpop-ish sound. His confident melodies couch such left-field observations as "He needs an antihistamine when there's pollen/He grew up in Uskedalen." How great it would be to hear this stuff in a production that saw it not just as ridiculous but as sublimely ridiculous. The cheery, amateur-hour vocalizing and stick-puppets-and-butcher-paper aesthetics are cute, yet they mask a major talent in the making. S.W.

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