Seattle's Most Exciting Theater Festival Goes Kamikaze
The first sign that something is really wrong is the large, broken-sounding band trudging through a cover of "The Gambler" with a lot of pluck and not too much else. There are way too many acoustic guitars, for one thing, and the other instruments—a synthesizer, bongos, kazoo—aren't being handled with much deftness. The vocalists are mauling their parts, singing flat and fucking up lyrics and, during the chorus, generally sounding like a drunken karaoke crowd.
14/48 is a Seattle institution, a high-wire act in which local theater people come together to put on seven randomly selected 10-minute plays that were literally written overnight on a randomly selected theme. (Tonight's theme is "For the Love of the Game.") The casts, directors, and set designers are selected at random, and they have less than one day to rehearse. 14/48 is always worth your time and money; the sleep-deprived performances are infused with enough of a gonzo energy to make even the failures (and oh, there are failures) highly watchable.
But in the past, 14/48 kept the randomness constrained within disciplines: The directors were chosen randomly from a pool of directors, the actors were chosen at random from a pool of actors, and so on. For 14/48: Kamikaze, organizers threw all 50 participants into a single pool, and all the duties were assigned randomly. An announcer explains that this means that six Kamikaze playwrights have never before written a play, and that six of the directors likewise have never before directed. At the assignment party, the announcer says, there were "multiple pukings." Which explains the janky house band's overreliance on acoustic guitars—four members have never played music in public.
The packed-in crowd at Kamikaze is hardcore. They're suitably drunk (a couple people have a hard time maneuvering the stairs, and the air in the theater has gone sour because it's roughly 32 percent whiskey breath) and they're enthusiastic in their insider knowledge. I can only assume that several people receive loud, encouraging applause and hooting when they take the stage because they are playwrights or directors, not usually actors.
It's a good thing 14/48 is playing to a friendly crowd, because Kamikaze is clearly an inferior product. It starts off well enough with A Beautiful Thing, about a high school football coach who hatches a highly inappropriate plan when his star player impregnates a fellow student. Prolific director Bret Fetzer plays the creepy coach with what could be either a menacing air of detachment or a lack of nuance; either way, it works. But the play ends badly, with an unearned suicide—in a 10-minute play, just about every suicide is unearned—and every other play has something seriously wrong with it, too. Two of them—Kick It, about four dads watching their sons play soccer, and Precipice, about four men on a base-jumping expedition in Norway—feel like boring movies condensed down to their blandest stereotypes.
I don't mean to be cruel; interesting moments are spread throughout, with even the most sober audience members laughing out loud. (The catchphrase of the night: "Vermont is for assholes!") But the point of 14/48 is to experiment, and sometimes experiments simply don't turn out to be as awesome as you'd expect. Sometimes, too, when you experiment, you get unintended results. In this case, Kamikaze proves that the single most important part of the 14/48 experience is a crew of competent actors; an interesting performance can paint over highly flawed scripts or erratic direction or production problems. Without the actors to sell the premise, things start to fall apart.