Sometimes graduate school is actually useful. The new Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET, hardy har) grew out of a class on ensemble development at the University of Washington. Professor Jon Jory told his MFA students to build a hypothetical company and find a good city for it. The students (several of whom had come from New York) picked Seattle and decided to put their invented company to work. They rented what used to be the Northwest Film Forum headquarters on Capitol Hill's 19th Avenue, and are in the midst of their sophomore show, Finer Noble Gases.

The play is a hodgepodge of gallows humor and druggy madness, featuring a busted television and a lengthy onstage piss (more on that later). It's also a West Coast premiere and a great improvement on their first show, the world premiere of Laura's Bush by Jane Martin (the pseudonymous playwright with ridiculously close ties to Jory). I didn't see Laura's Bush, but my trusty Anonymous Review Squad reported it was an attempt at topical comedy that never got off the ground.

Finer Noble Gases is much better--a disturbingly funny performance about strung-out rockers who slowly unravel in their trashy apartment. In a sadistic method-acting twist, they decided to perform it every single night between December 10 and 23.

"It was the actors who really decided to do that," said Gases director Marya Sea Kaminski, whom I interviewed just before the show in WET's new digs. "There's a sense of exhaustion in the play and they were interested in what that would be like. Just a second--" Kaminski quickly hopped up to play house manager, telling the audience to turn off their cell phones--a little ensemble DIY in action.

Which brings us to why someone would want to found an ensemble. It sounds like a hideous proposition, a consensus-based mishmash that's engineered to hobble the bold choices that make art interesting.

"Halfway through this show, I felt the same way," Kaminski said. "No strong opinions, everything washed to a fine gray. But ensemble is about having people around who can ask hard questions. There were some difficult conceptual issues that came up in the last week, and the show is much stronger for having answered those questions."

Now about that urination. Partway through the show, an actor who's been sleeping on stage wakes up, meanders to a bucket, and takes a frighteningly long piss.

"I think he drinks like a liter and a half of water before the show," Kaminski said. "He's got it pretty well timed, but tech week was hilarious--stopping and starting the play, his bladder was in passionate confusion."

WET's third show will be Next Tuesday, a silent movement play developed by Steve Pearson, another UW professor. Let's all pray it won't be another Laura's Bush. WET's academic connections brought them together--here's hoping the old graybeards don't bring them down.