PSpectrum Dance Theater
800 Lake Washington Blvd., 325-4161, spectrumdance.org. $20–$25. 8 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 6 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 20.
Donald Byrd glories in pushing our buttons. In branding Spectrum’s new season “America: Sex, Race & Religion,” he almost twinkled while calling it a conversation about “three of the quintessential American preoccupations.” But despite his zest for controversy, the first program in the series is more thoughtful than inflammatory.
Byrd makes the most of Spectrum’s repertory, but he does open the door to outside choreographers. Cyrus Khambatta, who runs the Seattle International Dance Festival as well as his own company, has worked with Spectrum before. His Truth and Betrayal is laced with moments of trust broken and relationships gone awry; throughout the dance for five, partnerships fail and attention wanders. Khambatta brings his experience with the weighted fluidity of contact improvisation to his work. This sinuous, grounded quality is a good addition to Spectrum’s high-tension virtuosity, and its dancers bring an intense focus on details. Early in the work, Jade Solomon Curtis and Alex Crozier approach and pull away from each other over and over again. The clarity of gesture—hands are repeatedly offered and rejected—makes the image as vivid as it is painful.
In restaging his 1990 Prodigal, Byrd hits the religion and sex buttons. The dance is a grand mixture of multiple images: a revival meeting, a trial, a commentary on 20th-century dance styles, and an exploration of sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion. Byrd himself plays the father, carrying a Bible and a handkerchief as he opens the work with a passage from Luke. His congregation, crisp in three-piece suits, waves handkerchiefs as Byrd exhorts them to “be merry.” They resemble the gospel chorus in the finale of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, but the son, crawling across the stage to his father, mirrors George Balanchine’s choreography for The Prodigal Son. Byrd has salted references to Balanchine’s version of the story throughout his own, especially in a deadpan recapitulation of the Siren seducing the Prodigal. Curtis recites the alphabet as she moves from image to image, echoing the Balanchine, until she arrives at Z—a slow-motion split suspended between a chair and a wheelchair.
Jacob Jonas is both sullen and repentant as the Prodigal, while Daniel Wilkins, as both the older brother and an attorney defending the Siren, incorporates martial arts with contemporary dance to powerful affect. His solo, in which he admits resenting his younger brother, is a study in barely controlled violence. Despite these frustrations, Byrd repeats the main theme of love and redemption throughout the work: “My son was dead and is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found.” Sandra Kurtz
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $41 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends Nov. 3.
ACT, building on a tradition of producing Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s plays that goes back to 1976, has for the past few months hosted the prodigious Tony-winning playwright as an artist in residence. The offspring of the shack-up is the American premiere of his dark 2003 comedy Sugar Daddies, which takes a familiar premise—a Faustian bargain between a worldly, wealthy older man with a shady past and a provincial, susceptible young woman—and rides it, well, nowhere terribly interesting. Directed by the author, this innocuous, good-natured fairy tale-gone-wrong features some terrific actors. Yet since the slightly ominous setup promises a conflict Ayckbourn doesn’t deliver, the nearly three-hour evening (including intermission) mostly feels like waiting in a sailboat for a breeze: pleasant enough to be on the water, but little significant movement.
Fortunately for the drifting vessel, an energetic cast and crew provide the paddles. Emily Chisholm plays innocent, dowdy Sasha, who brings home hit-and-run victim Val (Sean G. Griffin, in Santa suit), and right quickly confesses to coming from a family of believers (in Santa, that is). In the course of this clunky Q&A (in which the characters ask and readily answer a battery of questions about each other and themselves), Val recognizes in Sasha the kitten he will spoil rotten. In an interesting departure from the expected quid pro quo, he desires nothing in return but her joy—no sex, no strings. But Ayckbourn systemically saps potential menaces as soon as they appear. Sasha thinks her rent is going up (which might bind her to Val’s largesse), but then it’s not. When neighbor Ashley (John Patrick Lowrie) tries to warn Sasha about the possibly dangerous Val, with whom there is implied history, she implausibly refuses to let him tell.
Such unswallowable details spring from Ayckbourn’s comic craftsmanship, not from believable characters. Yet Sugar Daddies scores its moments, even while paddling in place. Sasha does a hilariously unself-conscious Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle walk in high heels. Anne Allgood does an extraordinary turn as an intimidated past consort of Val’s. And Elinor Gunn brings perennial freshness to the thankless role of Sasha’s sister Chloe, whose boyfriend problems—with a guy we never meet—exist solely to provide every crisis in the story. Little wonder it took 10 years for this small craft to blow across the pond. Margaret Friedman
PThe Walworth Farce
New City Theater, 1404 18th Ave., 271-4430, wearenctc.org. $20–$30. 8 p.m. Wed.–Sun. Ends Oct. 27.
Twenty minutes into New Century Theatre Company’s production of The Walworth Farce, it looks like things might devolve into shapeless absurdity. But as it slowly unwinds, the ridiculousness begins to make sense. And the more sense it makes, the more terrifying the play becomes. In a distressed London flat, Dinny (Peter Crook) and his adult sons Sean (Darragh Kennan) and Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor) are engaged in their daily performance of the titular farce. It’s a zany comedy of errors, triggered by the wake of a family matriarch, executed with wigs, a mustache, and a couple of cardboard caskets. If someone misses a line, the play-within-the-play halts for Dinny to berate his boys’ lackluster performance. The sons try again, and the farce resumes at a frantic pace, the little family—or rather the actors playing the family—executing a complex litany of gags for big laughs.
But those laughs are uneasy; there’s an ominous undercurrent to this 2006 work by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. During each interruption, we gradually learn why Sean and Blake have been kept close to the nest by a father who fears outsiders. When one of those outsiders, Hayley (Allison Strickland), makes an unexpected house call, the dark origin of the family’s ritual performance is revealed.
Still, this is a farce, expertly directed by John Kazanjian, that never succumbs to the darkness. And the NCTC cast lands every beat. Crook in particular is a tempest of focused energy, both hilarious in his secondary role—the scheming son at his mother’s wake—and chilling in his primary role as the fear-mongering stage father Dinny.
This isn’t an easy play to pull off anywhere, and the tiny New City Theater space presents a challenge for a production requiring multiple areas of audience focus. Yet Kazanjian turns that spatial liability into a strength. The two-act play was originally written for a proscenium, with all the action in a single enclosure. Here we look past trembling Hayley, trapped in the downstage kitchen, to see the shenanigans upstage. The farce is endlessly amusing, but it’s also framed with fear. Mark Baumgarten