For the next few weeks, Scot Augustson and Scotto Moore will be the odd couple of Seattle theater. The playwrights (or at least their plays) will share the stage at Annex Theatre, and like all archetypical odd couples, setting them side by side brings out surprising differences and even more surprising similarities.
Augustson is a man of many rubrics, and over the past decade, he has charmed Seattle audiences with his curlicue imagination and gleefully perverse sense of humor, writing comedies, romances, mythologies, and even shadow-puppet shows under the name Sgt. Rigsby and His Amazing Silhouettes. The latter, performed with a bank of actors at a table in old-timey formal wear, speaking and making Foley sound effects into old-timey microphones, has one of the most devoted crossover audiences in Seattle theater, bringing out people who don't usually attend plays. (You can tell by the comment threads about Sgt. Rigsby online.) A Terrible Price for Whimsy, one of Sgt. Rigsby's iconic productions, follows the rise, fall, and cocaine burnout of a singing chicken named Jenny. The audience laughter during Whimsy may be the loudest I've ever heard.
His serial comedy Penguins, about a gangland-style war among priests and nuns in a fictional diocese, is also wildly popular for its extreme vulgarity and comically over-the-top violence. The series also deploys film techniques onstage—in one memorable scene from the first episode, a hit man contemplates his target through a rifle scope while talking to himself. To create that effect, Augustson and director Bret Fetzer put the assassination target on a darkened stage and the hit man at the back of the house, behind the audience, where he illuminated his kill with a flashlight and spoke into a microphone. The effect was both chilling and hilarious.
Augustson is a master of the emotional sucker punch—while the surface of his plays glitter with wit, they maintain a sometimes terrifying emotional depth. His scripts keep you laughing, but the laughter is sometimes vertiginous and uneasy. In Augustson's plays, love and friendship walk hand in hand with disease and disaster. His Gilgamesh, IA, a play for two actors about childhood friends who meet to share some news—one is coming out of the closet, the other is terminally ill—is consistently charming and sad. His The Summer Before the Summer of Love has a similar effect, as two men fall in love even though both of them know that one of them is faking a fatal illness.
Last week, in an interview over e-mail, Augustson discussed what it's like being a playwright as opposed to something else. His extended metaphor is worth including in its entirety:
You're paddling down a river and over on an island in the middle of the river you hear this "Yoo-hoo!" And you look over and there is this beautiful mermaid/merman beckoning you over. So you go to the island and have an absolute blast. The mer-creature is a great cook and fantastic in bed. Good times, good times.
Then after a long, long time, you notice that not so many people are stopping by the island. And you hear rumors of fabulous things downstream. But by that point, your canoe has long since floated away and damn it, you've gone and fallen hopelessly in love with that silly half-human/half-fish.
When you're at the point of despair, a bird comes along and you ask about the other islands. The bird laughs and tells you the other islands are shitholes—comfortable shitholes, but shitholes nonetheless. People on those other islands spend a lot of time talking about interest rates and their cholesterol levels.
So you stay and make the best of it and pretend that you don't notice the zipper in the back of your lover's tail.
Scotto Moore is a newer playwright who tends to favor science fiction themes and ideas because, he says, of their potential for thought experiments, aesthetic experiments, and absurdity. "It's certainly fun operating in a niche without a lot of company," he wrote in his e-mail interview. "As if I needed to make my small pond even smaller—but it's mostly about the ideas." In his Duel of the Linguist Mages, opening at Annex on January 21, two researchers hack language itself. They discover "power morphemes," tiny units of meaning that are disturbingly easy to turn into weapons. "A large part of the fun of Mages," he wrote, "is taking the sci-fi elements and twisting them in preposterous directions. I'm not super convinced you'll often see this kind of experimental absurdity in a science fiction film these days."
In fact, Moore's science fiction plays are more daring than most science fiction films, even though—or perhaps even because—he can't replicate the special effects onstage. Instead, he has to return to the original impetus of science fiction: beginning from a place of fact and research, then extending the implied trajectory of those facts as far as his imagination will take him.
Pamala Mijatov, the artistic director of Annex, says that Scot and Scotto are two of her theater's most popular and frequently produced playwrights in the past few years. "Both write what could be called 'genre' plays—which seems to be something of a dirty word in the more 'serious' theaters," she wrote in an e-mail. "But clearly they both have an incredibly populist sensibility: Whatever else they're trying to say or do, the first imperative is to entertain their audience. They take that incredibly seriously and they're damn good at it. They both have great ears for dialogue and sharp wits, and can land jokes with deadly accuracy."
This month, you'll be able to see world premieres by both of these local superstars—one established, one rising—at Annex Theatre.