The Nexus Project is the closest thing to a fringe festival Seattle has seen since its actual fringe festival went down in a blaze of ignominy and finger-pointing five years ago. In 12 short plays by 12 Seattle writers—with the exception of Mike Daisey, who launched his career in Seattle before moving to New York—all the regulars have reported for duty: Stephanie Timm, Paul Mullin (this year's winner of the Stranger Genius Award in theater), Scot Augustson, Marya Sea Kaminski, Elizabeth Heffron, and so on. The results, for a festival, are surprisingly entertaining: The Nexus Project has an unusually favorable quality-to-crap ratio (five successes: five mediocrities: two stinkers), and all of its plays are mercifully brief.
Normally, the very idea of a fringe festival inspires a special terror: interminable performances of half-baked ideas inflicted on actors' friends, theater critics, and other suckers who have been swindled into watching another two-hour solo show about the long journey toward self-empowerment or whatever. To its credit, The Nexus Project inspires nostalgia for what's good about a fringe festival: a soup of new work, a pastiche of the city's zeitgeist, and the happy surprises writers dig out of themselves when they're pressed against a deadline.
The Nexus Project is only the second production by Next Stage, a new theater company in residence at the Hugo House. (Its first production was Demonology, a middling political satire about a milk-formula executive and the fecund earth-mother type who works as his temp.) The gimmick: Each playwright writes a short script inspired by a different charity and the audience votes on its favorite. The winning writer donates his or her royalty fees to his or her charity.
The plays are a grab bag, from dour liberal bromides (Seattle Weekly theater columnist John Longenbaugh on bird-watching and waterboarding) to farces of ghost stories (Augustson in top form, lampooning the old phantom-hitchhiker trope) to burlesque (Waxie Moon re-creating famous strip-tease scenes from All About Eve and The Graduate).
Two plays bizarrely seem to satirize their beneficiaries: In Blood Love, written by Ki Gottberg for the Puget Sound Blood Center, one sister (Natasha Sims) confesses to another (Kate Parker) about her new love affair with some guy named Kevin (Ian Lindsay). She breathlessly tells her erotic tale of walking into a trailer where several people are lounging on beds. Kevin approaches, "gives me a warm pack, and then sticks it in me!" She squeezes a stress ball, drains her effluvia into a bag, and is served postcoital juice and cookies. It's blood donation as kink—a telling metaphor. By sexualizing an act of charity, Gottberg—consciously or subconsciously—articulates the selfish streak at the heart of many liberal do-gooders, who give of themselves not for the goodness, but for the gratification.
This Loamy Excellence, written by Daisey on behalf of local theater On the Boards, begins with two bourgeois bohemians in inflatable kiddie pools, slathering themselves with some brown, sticky substance. The woman (Angie Manning Goodwill) says to the man (Alex Samuels): "I've hired Mexicans before, as one does, so I thought: 'Why not have a conscience?'"
She's hired the Mexicans to protest the war for her. And she's fucking one of them, "because he's exotic." The man is aroused by her politics, her lust, and her French bulldog named Social Responsibility. He confesses his dirty secret: He's been commenting online anonymously, under the handles "Fnarf" (a real-life commenter on Slog, The Stranger's blog), "Son of Fnarf," and "tacomuncher73." They talk about pesto recipes and how nice it is that all their friends agree that war is bad and how much they like to pay for sex with people who make them feel exploited and objectified. It would be innocuous satire except that On the Boards, while being Seattle's best theater, is also a flagship for Seattle's bourgeois bohemians—the kind who might hire Mexicans and compliment their work ethic, pride themselves on agreeing to agree that war is bad, and engage in goofy kinks just to distinguish themselves from the rest of the squares. You cannot escape the notion that Daisey is roasting the very people to whom he's donated his labor.
A handful of the other plays are in the five successes category: The Last in the Doom Series, by Kaminski, is a grim meditation on American self-obsession and preapocalyptic decadence. The large and bearded Aaron LaPlante sits on a couch and recites soliloquies (about a mentally ill street person and why we should elect Martin Sheen as president), while Sara Porkalob watches TV and cooks. Then the lights go down, the disco ball goes up, and they dance to Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
Slumber, by Heffron, is a comical cycle of micro- plays about people sleeping on couches in increasingly improbable situations. It begins with a husband asking his wife about the stranger sleeping on their couch. "I told you I took a lover!" she says, exasperated. (He's Russian, drunk, and passed out while waiting for his vodka.) Slumber progresses through two creepy men trying to establish the identity of the strange woman sleeping on their couch ("I wonder if she's warm like that everywhere—we'd better check") to a merry Irishman who's dragged his embalmed wife from the mortuary to live on his couch (she won't ever decompose, he explains, because "she's mostly plastic now") and back to the drunken Russian lover.
Like the best of The Nexus Project, it's fast, funny, and delightfully fucked up.