Melanie Masson

The conditions couldn't have been more accommodating for a summer arts festival at an old dairy farm 58 miles north of Seattle—sunny but not sweltering, a cool river for swimming, and the shade of an old barn where people talked about the dozens of artworks they'd seen that day. They discussed modern dancers weaving colored rags into a large nest, clotheslines with white fabric that started on top of a riverbank and disappeared into the water below, hundreds of small red flags fluttering in a grid over a slow-moving slough populated by tiny fish.

One piece dominated the conversations: a miniature house by Jordan Schwartz along the path to the Stillaguamish River. (Nearly everyone had seen it, since nearly everyone had gone swimming.) From a distance, it looked like a simple dollhouse. But as people got closer, they could hear it hum with life. Inside, the house was packed with bees—climbing over tiny chairs, swarming against tiny windows, hanging around a honeycomb suspended from the ceiling and dwarfing the house's tiny furniture. From a few steps away, the piece looked like a cute visual pun—dollhouse as beehouse. But close up, peeking through the windows, it looked like a nightmare invasion of giant stinging insects.

The Lo-Fi Arts Festival is in its sixth year at Smoke Farm, which has become a kind of town-and-country hub for Seattle's culture set. (Full disclosure: I am involved in some Smoke Farm education programs, but not the Lo-Fi festival.) Each year, Lo-Fi navigates the tension between nature and the artist—between the romantic grandeur of the landscape and the rationalist idea that the human imagination can transcend thoughtless nature.

This year's best works struck a middle road, using the environment as a medium. Sarah Kavage and Adria Garcia returned this year with their woven grass installation—braiding and weaving long meadow-grass into immense ropy patterns, changing the way we look at grass everywhere. Laura Elizabeth Becker installed her Happy Accidents of the Swing: a hand-cranked phonograph, some old 78 records (including a quaintly bluesy W. C. Handy tune), and a swing hung from the branches of an old tree for people to create whatever "accidents" they'd like to take part in. For the inquisitive, she also hid a bottle of bourbon. (It was predicted to become the prime make-out spot of the evening.)

Jazz sets by the Schwa in a far-off pasture—vibraphone, double bass, and reeds, including a bass clarinet—captured the spirit of Lo-Fi, as they played with their sonic environment and were visually framed by hillsides in various stages of logging (brown clear-cut, pale green new growth, slightly darker older growth). For one of their improvisations, based on the idea of "earth," the bass player bowed his lowest E note, creating an almost percussive vibration while the vibraphone hummed on the high end of its register. The piece sounded like earth noir, the cold immensity of the third rock from the sun as you might hear it reverberating in a nighttime city alley.

Other pieces were more innocuous—some knitted balls hanging over tree branches, or Julia Hensley's JellO-Fi, a pack of molded Jell-O chunks plopped in the grass. Though the art was inconsistent, the bonhomie flowed freely among more than 100 artists sitting, eating, and drinking by the campfires.

Lo-Fi has matured over the years, but it still sometimes feels more like a backslapping community festival with an arts component—rigorous and slapdash by turns—than an arts festival. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Local artists should have a weekend when they can gather, throw stuff at the wall, and see what sticks. But one wonders, if Lo-Fi continues to grow, whether it will make more room for an intense, varsity-level festival, perhaps with fewer works that show more concentrated effort.

Adifferent kind of hive-mind dominates The Last Leper of Charenton, a new play by Todd van der Ark set in the French asylum that famously housed lepers and lunatics together, including famous inmates such as the Marquis de Sade and mathematicians André Bloch and Joseph-Émile Barbier.

In van der Ark's vision, directed by Gary Zinter, Charenton is a place where society's outcasts commingle to discuss their decaying bodies and eroding faith. As one sardonic inmate in a stained hospital robe (Bruno, played by David Rollison) says to his depressed fellow inmate/lover (Brigette, played by JenRenée Paulson): "I adore your quaint drivel... you sad, somber bitch." The lost souls of Charenton are profane, but not aggressively so—it works as a contemplative, minor companion piece to the more ambitious and cataclysmic Marat/Sade, also set in Charenton, by Peter Weiss. recommended