East Hall Theatre; ends Sat., Oct. 29
Aphra Behn, the shady lady and founding mother of English letters, is the perfect playwright for a troupe like Ghost Light Theatricals. She embodies what many Seattleites think of as Capitol Hill moral values: getting fucked up, fucking anyone in sight, and sticking it to the patriarchy. A brash and penniless spy, jailbird, potty mouth, "punk and poetesse," as they called her, Behn was so subversive that in her big hit, the 1677 Restoration comedy The Rover, it's not clear that the rover in question is the guy out on the town at carnal, anything-goes carnivale time—because the girls are on the hunt, too. ("A woman's honor," Behn wrote, "is not worth guarding when she has a mind to part with it.")
In fact, the women seem to be running the show. Erika Godwin is sharp and sassy as Hellena, the roving heroine who dons a gypsy costume and prowls Naples for a man to get her out of her dad's vile plan to lock her up in a convent. Her sister Florinda (plucky Si Issler) also goes gypsy to thwart her mincing martinet of a brother, Don Pedro (Brian Giannini Upton), who wants her to marry Don Antonio (Joe McLaughlin), the viceroy's dull son.
The disguised women keep colliding with the entourage of the male rover, Willmore (Brandon Hoskins), a skin-and-bones horndog who, under Beth Raas' raffish direction, follows his erection wherever it points, like a dowser's stick. Willmore's hunky crony Belvile (Neil Brookshire, to the leading-man manner born) burns to marry Florinda. Their country-dumb pal Blunt (Patrick Allcorn) looks for lust but only winds up robbed and dumped in the sewer in his undies by an unscrupulous mattressback.
You can't keep track of all the dizzying double crosses, seductions, and sword fights (with umbrella, broom, and raquetball racket), but you do get the vivid sense that Behn defends eros unbound in a more rampageous way than Shakespeare. She's also more pitilessly realistic about power: Florinda keeps narrowly escaping rape, and men are foam-flecked dogs.
The production makes a pleasingly ramshackle mess of a masterpiece that was ramshackle to begin with. The scholar in me huffs about playing the tragic, spurned courtesan Angelica Bianca for laughs—she was originally played by the actress/ mistress of Behn's patron, King Charles II, and here she's a big, flaming transvestite (Barry Cogswell, a towering inferno of yocks). But I chuckled. Some of the gags are labored and unfunny; the mime-clown-couple interludes should be cut. But fight choreographer Kevin Inouye stages a nice fight, sound designer Kristin Holsather gets props for using April Stevens' hilarious sex-kitten tune "Teach Me Tiger," and the unevenly paced verbal scuffles add up to a satisfying rough-and-tumble.
The show's spirit is captured by one cast member's mispronunciation of the line "a popish carnival." It means a carnival in the pope's country, but this production pronounces it as "poppish." Just so: This is a pop show—noisy, rude, off-key, clumsy fun. In her Westminster Abbey tomb, Behn smiles. TIM APPELO
The Compendium of Nastiness
The Womb; ends Sat., Oct. 29
Theater is anywhere you hang your act, so it should come as no surprise that a pair of audacious women—playwright/director Ki (Ubu) Gottberg and actress Elizabeth Kenny (last seen in New City's Bash)—can bake some cookies, drape their basement with plush red velvet, and ask a baker's dozen of onlookers into their home to sit still for an hour and watch a show. After the shock and awe following 9/11, Gottberg says she got to wondering if theater would, or even could, remain a viable art form. She set about reviving a dramatic genre that might simultaneously deconstruct and revitalize the foundations of drama.
The Compendium of Nastiness is, according to Gottberg, an "extrapolation" on the 19th-century gothic melodrama, a form that relied heavily on spectacle and primitive delineations of good and evil. The play—in which Kenny draws the audience into an intimate space using straightforward storytelling and the manipulation of crudely made puppets—comes across as a combination of Arabian Nights and Punch and Judy shows, cut with a heavy dose of Rabelaisian sexual farce.
It opens with a confession: "I imagined a million stories with endings other than this," says Kenny, speaking in a languorous, sultry voice while lounging in a drawing room chair. From here, the show becomes a funny, sexy, antic flight into the very nature of storytelling, with Kenny trotting out a cast of stock characters that includes a princess, her possibly incestuous lover, a sorceress, the "Demon Gertzberg," and a pair of Middle Eastern attendants named Hussein and Sahib. A meditation on desire and sexual discovery, among other things, the production continually circles in on itself as it both celebrates and satirizes the classical elements of narrative.
Kenny proves an excellent host, able to juggle her multiple chores (puppets, role changes, physical contortions) with verve while at the same time investing the small, dark stage with a thrilling sense of possibility. Her performance bristles with sensuality and humor, and she's got the right kind of charisma to enrapture the audience. She has good material to work with, too: Gottberg's clever script is often very funny, exhibiting a sort of full-blooded, in-your-lap sexuality that chidingly tut-tuts the alienating effects of our current cultural freeze. Though the frenetic energy of the production threatens to tilt into unintentional parody, Kenny somehow always manages to rein it back in with an inspired gesture or sly wink.
For the most part, that energy, coupled with the parlor-room limitations of space, gives The Compendium its charm. The show, an obvious labor of love, thankfully doesn't take itself too seriously. It won't change the world, but for a little while, it does make it a much warmer place to be. RICHARD MORIN