Joe Von Appen at ConWorks Studio Theater, 500 Boren Ave. N., 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $6–$12. 8 p.m. Fri.–Sat., through March 11.
Does this sad old world really need another shaggy, early-twentysomething solo performer whose ironic yawp and wiseass wiggle shoots the post-consumerist abyss with whip-smart riffs on the universal Coca-Cola conspiracy? Stoned at the mall, lost in the cosmos. Portland-based performance artist Joe Von Appen, whose previous shows bear such titles as Swearing at God and Suicide for Dinner—you get the drift—walks in the tread laid down a decade ago by Eric Bogosian, updated for the generation of Columbine, Eminem, and Office Space. Von Appen's terrain is the alienated, alienating wasteland of media oversaturation and emotional bugger all, a planet populated by smart but slightly off characters whose sense that something's not quite right is a goad to weird or wild or just plain bad behavior. Imagine Marx on Ecstasy, or Hesse on steroids. In Von Appen's onstage nightmare, kids take pistol shots at satellite dishes, fetuses grow abnormally long middle digits, and God is just a glue sniff away.
This is cultural criticism du jour, a sort of millennial goosing where bourgeois morality and pop culture are satirized into a monstrous, inside-out hallucination. Everybody's doin' it. The thing is, Von Appen does it particularly well. He's not just acting out these pantomimes, he inhabits his characters, bringing them to painful, pulsing life. His writing is sharp, his humor complex and sophisticated, and he's a crackerjack actor, just riveting. Most impressive, however, is Von Appen's dramatic patience—his willingness to take his time getting where he's going and his confidence that the destination is worthwhile. This is most evident in Trigger Kids' penultimate skit, which plays as a shocking and hilarious kind of customer-service revenge fantasy. A less talented performer, anxious to hit pay dirt, would jump too soon, but Von Appen lets the suspense build while capturing the soul-killing drudgery of the service industry. It's moments like these that make Trigger Kids completely worthwhile. Appen's targets are nothing new, but the kid's a deadeye, and his ammo is explosive. RICHARD MORIN
The Devil and Daniel Webster
Seattle Children's Theatre, 201 Thomas St., 206-441-3322, www.sct.org. $16–$31. 7 p.m. Fri., 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun.; through April 1.
The strengths of Seattle Children's Theatre's latest world-premiere production will be familiar to anyone previously dazzled by this talented company's work. The weaknesses come from the script— surprising, considering the author is Pulitzer Prize–winning local playwright Robert Schenkkan. Devil is an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's classic New England tale about a Faustian bargain struck by a poor farmer, Jabez Stone, and the Prince of Darkness, aka Scratch. Stone receives seven years of wealth, power, and happiness in exchange for his immortal soul. When it comes time to pay up, the farmer enlists the aid of the distinguished lawyer and senator Daniel Webster. In the courtroom showdown with Scratch, Webster faces a judge and jury made up of some of the great villains of American history.
The production's high points include veteran director Rita Giomi's wonderful use of magic, puppetry, and fine ensemble acting, and Matthew Smucker's gorgeous sets, which look like painted woodcuts and evoke New Hampshire's rugged beauty. The central problem lies in the playwright's treatment of Webster, whose words must convince the audience not only that a jury of villains would find for his client but also that the American experiment in democracy and freedom embodies the best strivings of humanity.
Instead, the devil steals the show. Sean G. Griffin's performance will frighten you, whether he's ensnaring the hapless farmer in his blood pact or delivering compelling, beautifully written speeches about the presence of evil in our nation's history. Whenever Scratch is offstage, you'll find yourself waiting for the reappearance of Griffin's sinister panache and commanding presence. By contrast, the language and argument of Webster's speeches seem dull and inconsequential, and Peter Crook's subtle depiction of the senator might be better suited to a historical re-enactment than a fairy tale. GEORGE HOWLAND