Confusing but Adorable
The New "Awesome" Show at Seattle Children's Theatre
Putting on a play is like coming up to people and saying, "Hey. Hey. Pssst! I know you're busy and we've never met, but I just have to show you this thing I made. Seriously, come look at it. COME OVER HERE AND LOOK AT IT!" If what you have to show people is, like, a photocopy of some Celine Dion lyrics or two gumdrops stuck on a toothpick or, oh, a turd (more common than you'd think), we're going to be unhappy with you. (Especially if you insist we look at it for two hours.) But if it's something like Here's What Happened—a metaphysical musical by local art-rock heroes "Awesome"—we just might give you a hug.
I'd never seen "Awesome" before, so I had no high expectations to be smashed or low expectations to be exceeded. My raw reaction: "Awesome" is the kind of dynamic creative enterprise you dream of having in your town. There are seven of them, which is not too many. They play clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, drums, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, typewriters, bullhorns, and other things that either are or aren't musical instruments. They all sing and remind you how little vocal harmony there is in modern pop music. Their songs are funny, pretty, and geeky. And oh—the accordion!
In Here's What Happened, the seven scamper around, singing, playing, talking, and swapping hats, instruments, and overhead projector slides. The spectacle is exhilarating; the play entertains, even with its slightly too thick icing of sugared sincerity.
A few reservations: Firstly, and most importantly, what the fuck are you guys talking about? Here's What Happened is confusing, and I can't imagine what it will do inside a child's brain. The plot seems like arbitrary scaffolding built around a series of fantastic, preexisting, unconnected "Awesome" songs, which—secondly!—is exactly what you guys happily proclaim Here's What Happened is. The gamble doesn't pay off and I lose interest in trying to decipher the story, though never in the songs, which are great.
Here's what happens: The play opens with Nancy Guppy as the narrator, enjoying a delicious apple. (By the way, has anyone else noticed that Guppy looks literally exactly the same as when 12-year-old me was videotaping episodes of Almost Live!? In a molding attic somewhere, her shrouded portrait morphs imperceptibly into that desiccated ghoul from Tales from the Crypt. I am 98 percent sure. Just saying.) "This is the story of the room and the mind and the universe and a whale and seven explorers and you," she begins.
A man named John is reclining in an apple orchard when the apples turn dangerous. They fall, they bonk, they are immediately banned by the vaguely menacing Board. John calls for a "fruivolution" (because without fruit, "existence itself would be fruitless!"), and finds six like-minded companions to help overthrow the Board. They meet a whale who tells them, in tremulous burbles, that the situation is worse than they think: With the Board's constant redefining of reality (fruit is now a "harmful foodlike substance with seeds that will asphyxiate and in fact kill children"), everything thinkable is becoming confused or forgotten—therefore, unthinkable—and the universe is hurtling toward nonexistence. At least I think that's what they are saying.
All this talk of definitions and being and doing and unthinkables and whales got me wondering what I used to know about Aristotle. I found the following in my old laptop: "A frog can 'be small,' 'be afraid,' or 'be green,' but none of those attributes accurately describe what the frog 'is.' If someone points to the frog and says, 'What is that?' the answer is not 'green,' but 'a frog,' or, ideally, 'Jerry the Frog.'"
This is a helpful way to think about "Awesome." Evan and Basil and David and John and John and Kirk and Rob can "be 'Awesome,'" and "Awesome" can "be funny guys in an awesome band," but it doesn't follow that "Awesome" must "be funny guys in an awesome band that writes awesome musicals." In fact, if Aristotle pointed his dead Greek finger at Here's What Happened and asked, "What is that?" I might say, "A little bit of a mess." But I'm still thankful "Awesome" is around.