Opening Nights: Arcana

Each turn of a card brings a new mini-play.

Within a tarot deck lurk 22 special cards known as the Major Arcana. Depicting such archetypal figures as Death, the Fool, and the Hermit, as well as allegorical concepts like Strength and Temperance, they wield fanciful power over the fortune-seeker. Having these figures and abstractions come to life and interact with modern-day humans may sound like a painfully forced conceit. But by placing himself at the mercy of the deck over the course of 10 years—writing short plays on merciless deadlines for such stunt festivals as 14/48—Seattle playwright (and longtime SW contributor) John Longenbaugh has come up with providential results. This showcase presents eight wildly varied and whimsical encounters between mortals and the fates, figures, concepts, and constructs who pull their strings. But unlike the many thematic shorts programs that have become all the rage since This American Life, in which multiple playwrights give their otherwise unrelated takes on a topic, Arcana's pieces cohere, bound by a single creator's sensibility. Six actors, five directors, and a resourceful skeleton crew conjure a world that seems vastly larger than Open Circle's compactly tiered stage. The expansive illusion comes partly from the epic scale of the subjects: a Holy Roman empress cycling through the speed-dating process; the first female pope as interviewed by a journalist from Rolling Stone; the four figures in Manet's iconic Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (including one stunningly nude woman), cavorting and conversing quite plausibly (and amusingly) about the pros and cons of life in a never-ending pose. In "Affairs With the Moon," Longenbaugh reveals four unrelated women's conversations with a debonair, white-clad, Bobby Darin–like Moon figure (Anthony Duckett), who plays a different counterpart to each woman—lover, psychiatrist, confidante, and Santa Claus. Duckett's looks, at once unique and protean, make Arcana's cast of six seem like 12. Longenbaugh explores delicate inner lives and human desires, without mawkishness and with enough twists and revealsto be touching as well as intriguing. In one howler of a comedy—"Petting Sounds," incarnating the tarot symbol of the Lovers—a woman asks her neighbor to turn down the sex tape he's listening to, and is treated to more of an explanation than she had bargained for. Brandon Ryan, who's superb in all his scenes, deserves a medal for not losing it while explaining what they're listening to. Only one scene, "Cry in the Forest," falters a bit in tone and ending, but even that one has distinct charms en route, including fine, subtle performances by April Davidson and Erin Ison. Often shows composed of shorts feel choppy and exhausting because they demand of the audience so many gear shifts between scenes. To smooth its transitions, Arcana opens each new scene with a sexy, stylized revelation of the next card to the ensemble, accompanied by entrancing music. Another binding mechanism is an elegant picture frame on the highest tier of the stage, in which figures appear in tableaux as though on the cards themselves, dramatically lit by Dave Baldwin, whose atmospherics in scenes about Sun, Moon, and Star feel at once meteorologically real and dreamlike. In "Stardust," dusty light shines down on two almost featureless young lovers like a hazy recollection, while a pair of old ladies perched above peer into glowing paper bags full of what memories they can take with them. Longenbaugh & co. shamelessly heist your heart when you least expect it. You should let them.

 
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