Love and Death
A New Musical About Phony Psychics and Phone Sex
There are two ways to watch The Callers, a world-premiere musical about two women who work as phone-sex operators and how their lives tangle with two men who work as telephone psychics who claim they can talk to the dead. You could watch it at face value, simply as a musical. Or, since it's by young local writers, directed by Andrew Russell (the new, young director of the troubled Intiman Theatre), and performed by a small company that is struggling to reestablish its identity after a few rounds of personnel changes, you could watch it as a litmus test for the near future of Seattle theater.
The skeleton of the story is both sweet and tragic. Emma (Kate Sumpter) and Bea (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) are new roommates who work a phone-sex line from their shared apartment. Both are single and both are locked in hideous spasms of grief—Emma recently lost her mother and Bea recently lost her fiancé. Meanwhile, Viktor (Ali el-Gasseir, who cowrote the show) and Kevin (Richard Andriessen, who composed the show) work a phone-psychic business.
In drunken, vulnerable moments, the girls call the boys to get in touch with their loved ones. Kevin falls in telephonic love with Bea and takes her on as a special project, trying to comfort her by "channeling" her dead fiancé while simultaneously courting her. This gets even messier than you might expect.
While the skeleton of The Callers is sound, it still feels like a work in progress. Some bits are searing: At one moment when Bea thinks she's talking to her fiancé, we can see a shadowy figure through windows in the upstage wall, haunting the brick alleyway behind WET's theater. Some bits are cute: The stage walls are lined with telephones, and much is made of the cords tangling (get it?) during the blocking and choreography. And some bits need work: A few actors have serious trouble with their notes and key changes; some plot points depend on improbable, deus ex machina writing. All in all, The Callers is a promising musical in its awkward phase, hovering between a quality workshop production and a not-quite-there full production.
The Callers sends the same message as a litmus test for the future of Seattle's unstable theater scene. With our large theaters stumbling (both artistically and financially) and our small theaters undergoing some generational shift (gaining innovation, losing experience), it feels like we've fallen backward into a second stage of malformed adolescence. Will we mature into something bold and strong or weedy and weak? That remains to be seen.