One Energized, One Enervated
Two Mini-Festivals of New Work
The inaugural, one-night-only show at Seattle's new West of Lenin theater was crackling and electrifying and fucking fun—a hell of a good way to christen a theater. The band pounded out playful versions of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't" and jaunty, jazzy blues songs while people hooted and clapped along. Some of Seattle's best actors (Charles Leggett, Sarah Harlett, Annette Toutonghi, et al.) read new radio-theater scripts from some of Seattle's best playwrights (Scot Augustson, Elizabeth Heffron, Paul Mullin, et al.), while a sound technician recorded them for a future podcast. Red plastic cups of beer kept appearing from a mystery keg. Director Leslie Law made the actors stop and go back for a "clean take" when someone accidentally kicked a microphone stand. During intermission, someone said 30 people had been turned away from the sold-out event. Someone else said 50 people had been turned away. West of Lenin seats only 88.
When I first pulled up to the Fremont theater, a few tipsy playwrights stood in the parking lot of the bar across the street—the George & Dragon, an English-owned, soccer-themed pub—bitching about theater critics. (My arrival did not dampen their gleeful fury.) By the time I left West of Lenin, its post-show christening party was at full throttle. A. J. Epstein, the proprietor of the new theater, was glowing.
The show was called Sandbox Radio Live, an extension of the Sandbox Collective, which is a loose affiliation of midcareer theater artists who've spent the past few years swapping resources, reading each other's scripts out loud, etc. Law, a founding member of the Sandbox Collective, decided they should do something for the public: a quarterly radio show to record, podcast, and maybe peddle for broadcast. The writers would write short scripts, the actors would read them, there'd be a band (piano, drums, bass, clarinet, accordion, etc.), and a Foley artist to make funny noises.
Actors often complain that they don't have enough time to rehearse shows and sometimes groan wistfully about how companies in Russia or Europe get months and months to "get to know" a production. (In his How Theater Failed America, monologuist Mike Daisey satirizes the way American theaters fly in artists to mount full shows in a matter of weeks: "An enormous box of freeze-dried actors is shot in from New York City!... These are people who've never met each other before in their lives, they're complete strangers, and they rehearse for three and a half weeks. Which, conveniently, is exactly how long it takes to master every play ever written in the English language!") A few days before the show at West of Lenin, one of the artists involved sighed and said, "Yeah, I'm not sure how this is going to go." She seemed to think they didn't have enough time for proper polishing.
But Sandbox Radio Live made a strong argument for rehearsing less. The evening had a fast-and-loose feel—the writers had let themselves go without being precious, and the actors weren't yet bored by their material or flying on autopilot. The evening wasn't as addled and slapdash as 14/48 (the twice-a-year festival in which artists write, rehearse, and perform 14 plays in 48 hours), but it was fresh, joyful, and awesome.
Mullin wrote a noirish script, inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson story "Markheim," about an angel-detective (read by Leggett) who tricks a burglar named Flip (read by Seanjohn Walsh) into not killing someone. Markheim begins by insisting that Flip kill him.
Markheim: You should at least try shooting me. Try.
Flip: Too much noise.
Markheim: You got a knife on ya?
Flip: Yeah, I got a knife.
Markheim: Use that.
Flip: I try not to kill psychos.
Markheim: You ever kill anybody?
Flip: Believe it.
Markheim: I'm having trouble.
In Irreducible Howard, Heffron wrote a melancholy comedy chronicling the birth, life, and death of a mediocre man (read by Eric Ray Anderson) in around 20 minutes. There were radio commercials, including one for Hanfordchallenge.org, in which a college dope who's just finished his finals wants something to worry about for the summer. ("Now my summer's totally ruined," he says gratefully once he learns about all the bad shit going down at the Hanford nuclear site.) Amid all the jollity, Anita Montgomery snuck in a sucker punch with her road-trip radio play about a couple trying to deal with the grief of a dead child, read by Kelly Kitchens and K. Brian Neel.
Sandbox Radio Live (and even West of Lenin itself) was a risky experiment, a wide swing. But it totally connected.
Last weekend also brought Northwest New Works at On the Boards, the annual two-weekend mini-festival of short works by Seattle's avant-garde—the ones who experiment as a matter of course. Usually, NWNW has at least one act that burns itself into your brain. (Mark Haim's This Land Is Your Land, a modern-dance lock-step comedy in which people entered and exited with various props and costumes—or no costumes at all—comes to mind.) But this year's NWNW was not, sad to say, as invigorating as Sandbox Radio Live.
Quark Contemporary Dance Theatre performed a bit where a woman made toast and talked about an alienated relationship with another woman (her lover? Her daughter? Her sister?) while that woman danced, throwing her arms around, metal bracelets clanking on her wrist. Jeppa Hall—aka Queen Shmooquan—sang in a painful and mostly unintelligible falsetto about how "meat is the hungry food/meat does your work for you." (She was wearing a rainbow Viking bathing-suit getup, as was her guest musician Julie Baldridge, who played violin and banjo while singing and stomping on a kick drum. After losing me and then winning me, Hall has lost me again.)
Haruko Nishimura from Degenerate Art Ensemble repeated a bit from the group's recent Red Shoes at the Frye Art Gallery, in which she twitched on the floor like an electroshocked cricket, and then sang (in a high, quivery-whisper tone redolent of Joanna Newsom) and danced with large projections of herself on a video screen upstage while a band, led by Joshua Kohl and Jherek Bischoff, played at the far edge of the stage. This was perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening—not for the dance, but for the music. The band (violins, viola, cellos, electric bass) should have been moved to center stage with the dancer at the wings. Not that the dance and videography were bad. But the music was better, especially with Bischoff's bass playing, high up on the neck, which bounced between jaunty and gloomy, but always sounded masterful.
Choreographer Shannon Stewart engineered a disturbing dance piece from 1950s retro aesthetics (old wood-cabinet televisions, musician Sam Mickens crooning archly in a white suit) and women walking backward diagonally across the stage, first slapping themselves like they were covered in bugs, then observing and playing with their limbs like children or stoned people.
All in all, it was a mediocre NWNW: The lows were higher, the highs were lower. We should look forward to next year, when perhaps the avant-garde will make things faster, harder, and stranger. And we should definitely look forward to the next thing from West of Lenin.
This article has been updated since its original publication.