I NEVER THOUGHT it would take goat- fucking to open my eyes to whats so frequently missing from local stages. Ive been griping about Seattle theaters sometimes alienating, often overweening pride for as long as Ive covered the scene, but it wasnt until this summer, watching Edward Albees bestiality-driven The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? affect the faces of ACTs full house, that I could put my finger on exactly what we need for the fall seasona genuine experience. As much as the live arts would like to posit themselves far above television or moviemaking, Seattle theater has increasingly tried to program audience reactions with infuriating condescension and presupposition: We have made something important, and you will now have the appropriate response to it.
The War on Terrorism hasnt helped matters. Though Seattle companies have finally taken up the call to duty by producing worksboth classic and contemporarythat question our own complicity in the terrible things that happen to us, we get a lot of telling rather than showing in the classroom of the theater. Sharon Ott staged a jejune, Shakespeare-lite Romeo and Juliet at the Rep this spring that raised its curtain on two modern-day guerrilla warriors (topical, get it?) while forgetting that the timeless love story at its core would be far more successful in rendering the ravages of petty social forces than any modern comment could be.
Even productions that are just supposed to be irreverent larks come down on you like eagle-eyed hawks. Take last months Point Break, the latest in a long line of Seattle fringe pieces that seem to think they can get by on attitude alone. It had a ripe comic idea: Take Kathryn Bigelows 1991 escapist flickin which Zen surfer Patrick Swayze shows FBI agent Keanu Reeves the thrill of robbing banksand stage it as a movie-in-progress, each night featuring a completely unprepared audience member standing in for Reeves. Trouble was, everyone else onstage looked unprepared, too, and seemed to be daring the rest of us to call them on it. The friends of the Keanu stand-in were howling their knowing asses off the evening I attended, while the surrounding people were laughing in that forced, uncertain way that suggests they didnt want to be seen as traveling without a hip passport. The tone of the evening, from its almost 20-minute-late start to its ill-conceived end, was simply this: Youve got no right not to find this funny because, hey, we think its bullshit, too! Well, thanks, kids. The show came with an audience- participation bagphony money to give the bank robbers, a used disposable raincoat to survive the water guns, etc.but little else of tangible fun.
Ive seen plenty of exceptions to this kind of proud incompetence and audience bullyingIntimans The Light in the Piazza inspired utter devotionbut it was The Goat that brought such considerations to a head.
At first, ACT used the better part of its promotion waving the flag of prestige (the play was an Albee Tony-winner, and everyone was talking about it). Then the theater apparently got cold feet, sending out a subscriber missive warning theatergoers of the unsettling nature of the play and letting them know they were welcome to exchange tickets and come back another time for something less scary.
But audience response to director Warner Shooks graceful production put all those preconceptions to shame, and served as a good example of what we have a right to expect from theater. A big commercial success, the show let people respond on their ownit dared you. Albees play asks us to consider one mans bestiality as just another example of the things we think about but dare not say. The show chewed on that in a very intimate theater-in-the-round setting. One couple walked out the night I wentyoung people, not elderly curmudgeons. Who knows why they left? Still others who at first seemed upset later looked profoundly moved. The older attendees (and there were many) sat there rather placidly, some with looks of mild amusementmaybe because by the time you hit age 65, youve seen some things in your life that might make even Edward Albee pause and are happy for the chance to ponder these unponderables.
If this seasons offerings want to reach the little people, theyll need to let us recognize the expansiveness of our own minds.
Steve Wieckings Fall Favorites
Girl Power Returns
The summer was a good one for young female empowerment, with both Whale Rider and Bend It Like Beckham. The Seattle Childrens Theatre has seized on the zeitgeist, opening its season with the world premiere adaptation of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a Newberry honor book by childrens author Avi. Set in the 1830s, Charlottes Confessions see a young British lady surviving a mutiny at sea, bonding with the crew, sailing like a pro, and even battling a murder charge. Nobody does childrens theater better than SCT the company knows how to present a message in an invigorating way. Forget Hollywood: This is what youll want to take your kids to this season. Seattle Childrens Theatre, 206-441-3322. Opens Sept. 12.
The Oddity at the Moore
That old hulk on Second sure can push our definitions of entertainment; anyone who saw Robert LePages mind-bending The Far Side of the Moon there in the spring can confirm it was one of the years best events. So go check out The Hanging Man, another ghoulishly sweet confection from the same minds who previously brought us Shockheaded Peter. Improbable Theater revisits from England (though without the musical pleasures of the Tiger Lillies) to present the story of an architect who tries to kill himself but is left dangling between heaven and hell by a miffed Death. The Guardian called it a piece in which the intensely spiritual and meditative sits side by side with The Exorcist and disco glitter balls. Sounds perfect. Moore Theatre, 206-292-ARTS. Opens Oct. 22.
The arts have finally kicked into gear with a response to world events: Bartlett Sher is staging Tony Kushners mammoth (nearly four hours) Middle East contemplation Homebody/Kabul at Intiman (begins previews Sept. 12. 206-269-1900). ACT is presenting the West Coast premiere of Omnium-Gatherum (begins previews Oct. 10), a satirical look at a disintegrating dinner party that was written shortly after 9/11. Even more promising is The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brechts wrenching love-and-war saga: If any Seattle company can pare off theatrical excess and still achieve a pieces timeless nobility, its theatre simple. Freehold Theatre, 206-784-8647. Opens Nov. 6.
One-Man Show with a Twist
When Charles Ludlam founded his Ridiculous Theatre back in 1967, he could hardly have known how influential it would be: The resonance and meaning he drew out of riotous camp, drag, and general irreverence has shaped the ambitions of every fringe company since. His prot駩 in both love and life was Everett Quinton, several years his junior, whos still around to create his own irregular delights. In Twisted Olivia: A Meditation on Oliver Twist, the writer/performer has his way with Dickens again (he previously scored with the Obie-winning A Tale of Two Cities) in a piece directed by fellow Ridiculous practitioner Eureka. Expect a dizzying solo frolic through the unconventional. Empty Space Theatre, 206-547-7500. Opens Nov. 28.
The Real Drag
Drag only approaches the level of Art when its not a charade but a means for exposing the soul, allowing a performer to get more real. If reports and Obie Awards are to be believed, thats the kind of drag we will get from John Kelly, a countertenor- falsettist-drag artist who has worked with Laurie Anderson and John Cage. His Shiny Hot Nights finds him saluting Joni Mitchell in both form and function. On the Boards had a virtually spotless record last season for left-of-center performance, so bet that this Mitchell medley is another experiment worth checking out. On the Boards, 206- 217-9888. Opens Sept. 11.