Opening Nights: Schmee and Balagan Play With History

Family secrets and a wild and crazy meeting of minds.

PICK Maria/Stuart

Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., 324-5801, $15–$21. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends June 6.

Theater Schmeater takes seriously the idea of challenging its audiences, and in so doing makes Maria/Stuart one of the more audacious productions of the season.

What will audiences make of a play that tries to fit comic-book superheroes, handless train-wreck victims, and changelings into a story that’s supposedly modeled scene for scene on a German romantic tragedy written in 1800 revolving around Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots? Hard to say. I found it frustrating, engaging, fascinating, and the very kind of thing that keeps live theater a viable art form. Oh, you could film something like this, but Maria/Stuart needs a live audience to work its alchemy.

Jason Grote’s text is newly minted, fresh from a debut last fall at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. It’s funny, but not the kind of piece with great one-liners you’ll be quoting over drinks after the show. It’s provocative, but not particularly enlightening. You won’t emerge changed or a better person for having seen it. What it will do, if it works for you, is broaden your live-performance palate.

In Grote’s plotline (admittedly, its parallels to Elizabethan intrigue are largely lost on me), three sisters are struggling with a family secret that has left one of them nursing an elderly mother, another with a son who daydreams of selling his superhero (named “American Male,” which, his cousin points out, sounds like a catalog for “fag clothes”) to a movie studio, and a third, after losing a battle with a train, with prostheses for both hands, which she uses to gobble everything within her grasp.

Add to all this the strange periodic appearances by The Changeling (played by several cast members in a sort of round-robin), who haunts them by speaking in German, gibberish, and finally a rather eloquent extra-terrestrialese while guzzling their soda in Mass Quantities. Over time, you see, The Changeling is evolving—to the point where it sends faxes and develops a refined sense of taste, even in soda. Its preference: “Anything but diet,” it replies peckishly.

Sisters Lizzie, Marnie, and Sylvia (Deniece Bleha, Lori Stein, and Macall Gordon) each take a turn trying to bend their family into something normal, but it’s like trying to turn a steaming pile of pancakes back into something resembling Bisquick. The Changeling, far from being frightening, is creepy but actually there to help set things right. All the sisters have to do is come to a mutual acknowledgement of their dark past, and the spirit promises to disembark forever. But People Are Strange, as Jim Morrison liked to sing, and often choose a familiar evil because it’s less frightening than the unknowable future.

Plaudits to David Gassner, Schmee’s artistic director and the visionary behind this show. Personally, I’d be biting my nails every night wondering if people would show up to see this gloriously disjointed mess of a dramedy. But in one choice after another here, his instincts are unerring. In casting Brandon Ryan (who does a better Bobcat Goldthwait than the original) and Jaime Roberts as a pair of dysfunctional cousins and Mary Machala as the matriarch of the clan, he makes sure he has a sturdy assortment of performers because the patterns they have to run are completely mind-boggling.

The production itself runs seamlessly on every technical level (including a clever method to dispose of The Changeling’s gallons of spilled soda), but what’s really on display here is the breadth of the Schmee’s ambition. As baseball great Dizzy Dean used to say, “it ain’t bragging if you can do it.” KEVIN PHINNEY

PICK Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Balagan Theatre, 1117 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006, $12–$20. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 30.

Good historians get their facts right. Great historians want to debate how those facts translate into significance. Comedian Steve Martin is neither, but he does have a quick wit and an ability to charm an audience whether or not he’s in the room, as Picasso at the Lapin Agilewinningly demonstrates. And while the production currently in residence at the Balagan is clearly community theater, it wears its affability as jauntily as Picasso would sport a beret.

In this 1993 one-act, which premiered at Steppenwolf and ran in a national tour that came through Seattle a decade ago, Martin ruminates on what might have happened had the most influential men of the 20th century encountered one another over drinks. Hitler doesn’t make the cut, and neither Gandhi, Lindbergh, nor Edison get a moment’s face time either. But Martin gets it right in allowing the rakish Picasso to wander into his favorite Parisian watering hole on the night that a young nebbish named Albert Einstein is waiting for his best gal to appear.

These two magnetic personalities repel, orbit, and finally engage in a whimsical duel of intellects (imagine each of them sitting across a barroom table with a scrap of paper as one of them yells, “Draw!”), while around a colorful parade of locals each take a whack at predicting what the century has in store.

Among them are a young American businessman outfitted like some carny huckster (Jason Harber), who imagines that his name will be on the lips of millions—”Schmendiman…Schmendiman, Schmendiman…” he chants, as if the very wheels of progress will carry his name to a breathlessly waiting world. There’s Freddy, the savant proprietor of the Lapin Agile (Mark Fullerton), who doesn’t mind shooting the shit with his clientele so long as they keep their tabs current; his girlfriend and barmaid Germaine (the saucy Megan Ahiers); an impossibly impish elderly (or, as he puts it, “recently old”) Frenchman (Seanjohn Walsh); Picasso’s art dealer-agent Sagot (Ray Tagavilla rocking an eyepatch); and a few lady admirers of the principals.

Playwright Martin has choreographed thispas de deuxas cleverly as he did his best stand-up work from the ’70s. As Picasso and Einstein draw ever nearer, each one recognizes the other’s formidable intellect—and that while they may be rivals for attention, they have far more in common as rare enlightened minds. James Weidman makes a truly amusing Einstein, all shaggy hair and eyes a-twinkling, and Trick Danneker has a field day with Picasso, who, had painting failed him, could have fallen back on a second career as a ladies’ man. Notcontent to let these two titans vie for command of the 20th century by themselves, late in the show Martin drops a time-traveling “visitor” (Mike Dooly) into the proceedings, who leaves the patrons predictably All Shook Up.

As usual, the Balagan tech crew acquits itself well considering the limitations of space and money, as evidenced by the serviceable bar set, quaintly tricked out by tech director Ed Cook, lighting designer Ahren Buhmann, and props designer Chris Bell. All in all, it’s a scrappy little show that gets its priorities right. You forget about the cartoon accents and the cheesy musical moments—you’re just glad to be along for the ride. KEVIN PHINNEY