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The Pie Test

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Every time I attend Theater Schmeater, the place feels a little more desperate, like an airplane that keeps dropping 500 feet. Catch-22, surprisingly, is a slight gain in altitude—but only slight. The WWII comedy about the military and its maddening bureaucracy is broad, anarchic, and sometimes unconscionably sloppy, just like Joseph Heller's novel, which I loved as a youngster for the sad comedy in exchanges like this:

"Your conscience will never let you rest."

"God bless it—I wouldn't want to live in this world without strong misgivings."

Some of those lines still make me laugh—some not so much. James Weidman and Rob Jones are particularly good as high-octane, uniformed lunatics in Heller's adaptation (which includes, sadly, some ill-advised dream sequences).

Die Wandlung at CoCA is a war play with the opposite approach—no jokes, all dreamy imagery, and mostly indecipherable dialogue. The 1919 play, by German expressionist Ernst Toller, is a predictably polemical Euro-leftist rant against war, the clergy, capitalism, tradition, the prison-industrial complex, etc. Thankfully, the production (by Implied Violence) digests the play into a goulash of gutter-dandy couture, butoh dance, bullhorns, simultaneous shouting soliloquies, cirque noir clowning, clanging percussion on found objects, bare light bulbs, and other tidbits from the radical art zeitgeist.

Die Wandlung is so stylized, it overshoots theater, lands in the installation/performance art camp, and passes the Pie Test. Here's how it works: Sometimes, while watching Serious Theater, fantasize about hurling a cream pie, vaudeville-style, at the stage. If you think the show could roll with your intrusion and not break down in tears or rage, you're watching reasonable theater with a sense of humor and perspective. If not, it may be too self-important to tell you anything worth knowing.

God's Country at CHAC fails the Pie Test—it's a documentary play about white supremacists, after all—and is a mixed success. By sticking to court transcripts from the Seattle trial of the Order, Steven Dietz's 1988 script tries to paint its subjects as real, nuanced people instead of hateful caricatures. It's an admirable impulse, but the play is overly manipulative. It uses shocking images—screaming Aryan Nation preachers, a boy reading Mein Kampf, a skinhead with a hammer spazzing out to oi music—which are little more than crude symbolic bludgeoning. These are cheap emotional punches—easily administered, easily forgotten—but not deep, artful cuts.

For all the race war, world war, and more world war, the weekend's tightest performances and most explosive writing were in a play about real estate: Seattle Rep's Radio Golf (see review). And to call out the elephant in the room: I did not assign the piece to Charles Mudede so the token black writer could review the token black play. I assigned it because he has seen, read, and thought about Wilson's plays more than I have. And he's never been tempted to throw a pie at any of them.

brendan@thestranger.com

 

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