Slavery, Stoicism, and Future-Speak
Through Nov 13.
The story is very simple. The year is 1858; the setting is the edge of a plantation near Savannah, Georgia; the characters are five black slaves—some recently from Africa and in the process of becoming black Americans, others, the descendents of Africans who arrived hundreds of years ago. All rush onto the stage looking for a missing boy named Li'l Jim, whose mother, Sadie, was sold that day by her owner as punishment for teaching the boy how to read. The five slaves, one of whom is Li'l Jim's father, find him in a pecan tree, the model of which dominates the stage. Attempts at convincing the traumatized boy that it's safe to come down from the tree propel the plot.
Considering the restrictions of the story and the roles—the earthy matriarch Oh Beah (Margo Moorer), the rebellious buck Nate (David Brown), the jocular uncle Ezra (Johnny Lee Davenport), and so on—it's impressive that the leading performances generate real interest, and the play as a whole manages to produce an important statement about American slavery. Flight is not about freedom, which at the time the play is set was just around the corner (Li'l Jim will spend most of his life as a free man); nor is it about the importance of an education. What ultimately concerns Flight is the big question that has confounded blacks of the 20th and present centuries: How did our ancestors survive such inhuman conditions? What gave them even a ray of hope? Why didn't they just give up and choose the eternal peace of death? Flight presents one of the many answers to the big question of how and why pre-Emancipation Proclamation blacks survived 400 years of the rawest exploitation. CHARLES MUDEDE
The Grapes of Wrath
Through Nov 19.
Directed by Seattle Children's Theatre Artistic Director Linda Hartzell, The Grapes of Wrath is an understated achievement. Frank Galati's Tony Award–winning adaptation balances Steinbeck's journalistic tone with the tragic power of the Joad family's iconic journey from a foreclosed Dust Bowl farm to California's corrupt, exploitative orchards.
Hartzell's spare production emphasizes the human story, making Wrath an actor's play. Todd Jefferson Moore shines as Jim Casy, the mendicant ex-preacher who lost Jesus, went into the wilderness "to do some figurin'," and returned as a big-hearted and naturalistic—that is to say, typically American—class avatar. Beth Dixon is a movingly tough Ma, and Erick Kastel makes an earnest and likeable Tom Joad, the ex-con who tries to keep a low profile but is sucked into the era's labor struggles by Casy's murder.
Steinbeck's Wrath is also an ecological drama: Jim Casy's new gospel is as pagan as it is communist and the story begins in a drought and ends with a flood. Intiman designer Carey Wong foregrounds the novel's liquid leitmotif with indoor rain and a river the characters dive into, hidden beneath the stage.
The Joads' quiet stoicism in the face of abuse, exploitation, and natural disaster is a sharp contrast to the emotional histrionics that regularly bombard us from stage and screen. They are tough people, soldiering through a tough time, and Steinbeck—and Hartzell—lionize rugged lower-class virtues as much as they denounce the class system that created them. That isn't to say some actors aren't a little stiff, or some characters too symbolic to be sympathetic, but Hartzell's less-is-more direction lets the Okies' unwavering dignity take center stage without seeming patronizing or propagandistic—redeeming Nickel and Dimed, Intiman's 2002 poverty play, which was both. BRENDAN KILEY
Capitol Hill Arts Center Lower Level
Through Nov 26.
Virtual Solitaire is a truly impressive undertaking. Dense as a pound cake and over two hours long, it is, at the very least, a monumental feat of memorization. Creator and performer Dawson Nichols packs his script to near-claustrophobic levels with technical jargon and the made-up future slang he dubs "dingo lingo." A sample from the opening monologue: "Sadorn 4am er klatch, whadaya?—Obviolé, soy solo, whadaya?—So I'm alone, buftahump, whadaya opine?—I'm nil corporeater metnal, that's Proximate." Gutsy and interesting, but I longed for the Cliffs Notes.
First performed in 1997, Virtual Solitaire centers on the unlikely world of video game development. Spastic, vulnerable techno-junkie Nathan (who, we learn early on, can no longer differentiate between virtual reality and real life) is hired to calibrate "emotional response" in a new game. As he leads us through the game's inner workings, its supposedly "slaved," or preprogrammed, characters begin to absorb Nathan's memories, obsessions, and insecurities, exhibiting them in fantastical, hallucinatory, and often poetic tangents.
Virtual Solitaire is brilliant but exhausting, a deft exploration of the isolating and addictive effects of technology. Nichols is aggressive and intense and his performance swept along forcefully enough to distract me from the fact that I understood only half of what he was saying. Amid the gimmicky future-speak are some strange, evocative lines like "her guitar case made a hollow guitar hole in the pavement" and "loneliness is this thing that crawled out of my cellular phone." I liked Virtual Solitaire best in these quieter, more human moments. Serious technophiles will love it all. Attention nerds: Your play has arrived. LINDY WEST