The Hunchback of Seville
The Little Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., 325-5105, washingtonensemble.org. $15–$20. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Mon. Ends June 30.
Washington Ensemble Theatre is the Icarus of the Seattle stage scene: aiming high for glory and risking the a spectacular fall. Over the years, WET has skittered back and forth between more accessible shows (RoboPop, Bed Snake) and works that defy an audience to figure out what’s happening onstage. In the latter camp, count Charise Castro Smith’s new one-act. Clocking in at mere 90 minutes, it runs at the pace of an interminable SNL sketch.
The Miami playwright’s farce is set in the wake of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Back in Spain, circa 1504, his patron Queen Isabella (Maria Knox) is profoundly concerned about the survival of her empire, and rightly so. For starters, she’s dying of some mysterious malady that leaves her short of breath and covered in sores. Worse, next in line for the throne is her schizoid brat of a daughter, the Infanta Juana (Libby Barnard), who’s equal parts shrill enfant terrible and scheming manipulative sociopath.
Who’s the hunchback? Up in her bedchamber—a masterpiece of economy from set designer Cameron Irwin—is Isabella’s brilliant but godless sister, Maxima (Samie Detzer). Isabella could die peacefully if only she can convince Maxima to renounce atheism to become counselor to her daughter, the next queen.
There’s much mixing and matching of anachronisms here, with guns and smartphones deployed, and Smith breaks the fourth wall on numerous occasions. This chiefly allows all-seeing chambermaid Espanta to provide a steady stream of superstitious warnings about what dire possibilities await. (Rose Cano’s Espanta bears more than a passing resemblance to Rosario, the maid from Will & Grace.)
Are there laughs? Yes, there are. But Hunchback packs 10 minutes of humor into an hour and a half. And director Jen Wineman’s reins are too slack: Jokes are consistently overplayed, and the acting styles are all over the map. Detzer’s hunchback speaks like a Valley Girl; Knox plays her monarch like Maya Angelou; and the cartoonish messenger (Benito Vasquez) seems to be from another play altogether.
Of particular mention is an epic tantrum thrown by the Infanta, which outlasts an average Def Leppard drum solo. Onstage, the other players wait patiently for the princess to finish her tirade, some rolling their eyes or with gazes fixed on the horizon. But in the audience, more than a few eyes darted repeatedly toward the exit.