Facsimiles of Sex, Death, and Danger
New Shows by Marya Sea Kaminski and Stephanie Timm
This weekend, two plays about guns, death, and disaster by two beloved local theater-makers opened: Sweet Nothing, by playwright Stephanie Timm, and Riddled, by Marya Sea Kaminski. It was an inauspicious weekend to open plays about guns, death, and disaster. As you probably know, just a few days beforehand, a mentally ill man named Ian Stawicki went on a shooting rampage, killing several people—including some well-known members of Seattle's arts community—and eventually shooting himself. (There is much more coverage of these events in this week's paper—see here.)
The dramatic murders cast a long shadow over many arts events last weekend, including Timm's grim fairy tale about a land ravaged by a war between wolf-people and people-people, and Kaminski's rock musical, set in a fictional rock club, about a gun- toting singer on the lam. It's not fair to judge these plays against last week's events—both plays have been in the making for months and months—but it would be dishonest to ignore their context. Both were a curious mix of success and failure in their reflections on guns, death, and disaster.
Sweet Nothing opens with two sisters (Monica Finney and Libby Barnard) prepping their youngest sister (Samantha Leeds) for a marriage to a stranger in a faraway land. Right away, Timm and director Laurel Pilar Garcia cue us into the fairy-tale world they're trying to conjure: The sisters wear pale nightgowns, sleep together in one big four-poster bed at the center of the stage, speak in rhymes and alliteration (lots of rhymes and alliteration), and say cute things like "You shouldn't have fed your crumbs to that murder of crows."
The youngest sister is whisked away, and the remaining sisters scrabble to survive in their blasted land. They were once rich but (in good fairy-tale style) have been abandoned to hoard crusts of bread and play elaborate games where they pretend to eat decadent, invisible foods. They read stories to each other that open with phrases like "Once upon a time, there was a middle-class family..." It's a nice mirror-universe touch, making us feel like the fictional ones.
A maimed wolf-person (Jason Sharp) shows up, and the sisters take him hostage. (As one of the sisters says, "We can't have you getting your lice in the nice, your bugs in the rugs.") There's a mute "woodsboy" (Quinn Armstrong) who gives the sisters meaningful, doleful looks when they cross paths in the forest. Tricks are played, tables are turned, and a sinister miasma hangs over everything.
In past plays, Timm has used the conventions of fairy tales and Victorian-style aesthetics as her storytelling palette, sometimes to powerful effect. Those stories embedded in our culture are full of shorthand about how we think about the big stuff: sex, death, life, cause and effect, morality, etc. Cherry-picking a few of those tropes and twisting them can be a quick road to sharp and transcendent satire. (Edward Gorey, for example, was the maestro of this method.) But that road also has its perils: Fairy tales and archetypes are deceptively heavy-caliber weapons. If the writer isn't careful, she can wind up with something precious, facile, and maudlin—a quaint game of dress-up in grandma's attic, draping characters in romantically gothic cobwebs. That's fun and all for the people involved, but it doesn't make for quality theater.
Sweet Nothing falls somewhere between that chasm of failure and the Gorey-level success that it's reaching for. Timm is a smart, gifted writer and nicely sets up all the archetypal bowling pins—the three sisters, their ravaged land, the mysterious other-land where the youngest sister goes, the dangerous yet attractive wolf-man, the mute and sweet-hearted woodsboy, the alliteration and rhyming—but doesn't quite throw the right strike to neatly knock them down. Everything about it feels stiff and mannered, which initially makes sense for a fairy tale. Except it doesn't fulfill its promise. In the end, we don't know why wolf-people, why faraway sister-marriage, why all this odd stuff has happened. Sweet Nothing feels undercooked, like a pack of interesting premises that don't know what to do with themselves.
Riddled, by Marya Sea Kaminski and directed by Braden Abraham, is also a pack of good premises that don't quite fulfill their promises. The first good premise: Disorient the audience so they feel like they're in a rock club instead of a theater.
Audience members go to the front door of Hugo House, get their tickets and one voucher per person for a free beer, and are directed to a side door around the corner. A bouncer-looking guy says, "I need to mark you" (he says this to everyone—I eavesdropped) and draws an "X" on your wrist. The door leads to a bright room with a stern man in a suit (Paul Budraitis, looking both sinister and reassuring, like a man you'd trust in a pinch but don't want to fall afoul of). He hands around an old carbine gun, which everyone gets to hold. Once that ritual is finished, another door opens to the Hugo House basement, dressed up as a rock club with an actual bar and a chunk of siding off of a trailer home, riddled with shotgun pellets.
Once people are settled in, the show begins. Kaminski, with the band Landlord's Daughter, plays songs, and she does some between-song patter as a character on the run from the law. Budraitis, it turns out, is a cop—or someone chasing Kaminski—who sits menacingly at the bar and watches the show. The stripped-down rock 'n' roll songs live somewhere between the Thermals, X, and the Epoxies. Their lyrics, and Kaminski's between-song monologues, are a triangulation: part biography of Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde; part autobiography of Kaminski's childhood growing up with a gun-collecting, survivalist-minded dad; and part fiction.
The premises are all good—turn the theater into a rock club, tell the stories of a woman on the run, make us feel compassion for outlaws, give the audience free drinks. But the result is something that feels like a theatery version of a rock show that is supposed to be dangerous but isn't. People sit politely in their neatly arranged seats. They don't dance (or even nod) to the songs. They behave like a polite audience in the facsimile of a rock club.
But they do that because they're in a facsimile of a rock club, with a facsimile of life, death, and sex. Even though it's partly autobiographical, Riddled doesn't feel like a band on the run. It, like Sweet Nothing, feels like a sack full of good premises that didn't work out.