Theater

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Two So-So Plays and One Absolute Stinker

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PURGATORIO False as a wooden nickel.

A Day in Dig Nation
Re-bar
Through Nov 20.

A Day in Dig Nation should have been good. Touted as "an evening of three bizarre comedies," Michael McQuilken's multimedia solo production is strong out of the gate, opening with an amusing sketch about the last man on earth in his post-apocalyptic bunker, somewhere "near the ancient city of Des Moines." I marveled at McQuilken's masterful timing (he pantomimes along with an elaborate prerecorded soundtrack), and chuckled at his "electric generator powered by feces" (yes, I am in eighth grade).

Then things get problematic. Dig Nation's second section details the disintegration of a popular rock band. McQuilken alternates between the bickering band members—a sarcastic drunk, a jolly sellout, and an antiestablishment grump—and their respective musical styles with nuance and obvious skill. There's a truly hilarious puppet show, some fascinating live beat-making, a cat named Vampire Sandwich, and one pair of impeccably pressed trousers—and the whole thing was interminable.

The trouble is, A Day in Dig Nation both is and isn't a joke. McQuilken's songs, framed in an extended comedy sketch, are real songs (I think), and good ones at that. Unfortunately, because of the comedic setup, I spent most of the night trying to figure out why these joke songs weren't the least bit funny. By the time the final section rolled around, my mind was elsewhere.

In addition to the structural confusion, Dig Nation suffers from a tragic case of bloat. At an hour and a quarter it could have been brilliant; at two it was grueling. McQuilken is talented and charming—you're rooting for him—but sadly, A Day in Dig Nation is less than the sum of its excellent parts. LINDY WEST

Lonely Planet
Northwest Actors Studio
Through Nov 19.

Lonely Planet is a thoughtful, heartfelt, not particularly subtle production of Steven Dietz's thoughtful, heartfelt, not particularly subtle play. Jody, a map seller so depressed he won't leave his shop, wants his hyperactive friend, Carl, to stop clotting the store's aisles with assorted chairs. The source of the chairs and of Jody's depression gradually comes to light as the two chums bicker, joke, and pry at each other's defense mechanisms. Nathan Hicks, who has the uncommon ability to seem utterly calm on stage, portrays a subdued, seemingly impassive Jody; Brandon Ryan launches into Carl's Albee-esque flights of anger and angst with twitchy imagination. Both actors are clearly talented. What they lack—in part because each is more than a decade too young for his role, in part because they are also the director and producer and had no external eye to shape their performances—is texture, and this is a play that needs a lot of texture.

Not much happens in Lonely Planet; most of its course is taken up with unrolling many metaphors (perhaps too many; as they pile up, even a simple and eloquent metaphor—like musings about the Mercator projection—starts to glare). This verbal embroidery is delicate and often elegant, but the script is like thin cloth between our fingers. Written in the thick of the AIDS crisis, Lonely Planet wisely underplays its emotions, letting small acts resonate against the world outside. For better or worse, most people no longer view AIDS as a crisis; without that external pressure, the play needs actors who can provide the context with their performances, but not overplay the quiet emotional shifts. Hicks and Ryan don't achieve that tricky balance; the production doesn't fall flat, but it never lifts off either. BRET FETZER

Purgatorio
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through Nov 26.

There's no nice way to say it—Purgatorio stinks. This world premiere by renowned playwright Ariel Dorfman takes place in purgatory—a blindingly white hospital room—where the white-coated (white) Man interviews the hospital-gowned (black) Woman. She is Medea, the exotic sorceress of Greek myth who famously butchered her children to punish her lover, Jason, for leaving her. Purgatorio begins in the afterlife, where Jason (disguised as a psychiatric evaluator) has to coax the bitter Medea into contrition so the two can get out of purgatory.

The confrontation should be volcanic, but the production has all the impact of a summer breeze. Within the first 10 minutes, the audience realizes that the Woman's interrogator is Jason, but it takes her an hour and a half to catch up to us. When she does, the curtain falls. Ostensibly about moral crimes and reconciliation—a recurring topic for Dorfman, who worked for Chile's Allende regime and barely survived the Pinochet coup—Purgatorio is simply an oblique recounting of the Medea story, with some dead-end verbiage about forgiveness and responsibility that is neither poetic nor enlightening.

The acting is also vacant. Every shout, every sob is as false as a wooden nickel. For all their volume, the pair is too sterile and poised to give us an entry point into their grief and anger.

Everything is wrong with this play, except for the set, a painfully bright hospital room suspended in a black void—cheers to Nick Schwartz-Hall for a simple design that upstaged everything else. BRENDAN KILEY

 

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