by Brendan Kiley

A theater storm hit Seattle last weekend, with two semi-regular cabarets and a short festival converging over the city like three avant-garde weather systems. Variety shows Spin the Bottle and 12 Minutes Max presented everything from contemporary dance to surreal comedy while 14/48, "the world's quickest theater festival" (continuing this weekend at Consolidated Works; see Stranger Suggests), created 14 original short plays in--you guessed it--48 hours.

It's always a treat to see so many great performers doing so much new work, but theater binges always bring up the persistent, troublesome question: Does anybody else care?

It's a common opinion that movies and television knocked the teeth out of theater and seduced its audiences with big screens and even bigger boxes of popcorn. There's some truth to the complaint. While Shakespeare begged his audience in Henry V, "think when we talk of horses, that you see them," The Last Samurai pitches us headlong into equine battle frenzies. In terms of sheer spectacle, theater can't compete, but there is hope. Technological upstarts sometimes energize their older art counterparts, forcing them to capitalize on what they can do that other media cannot.

Painting, for example, took its turn for the abstract after an opera-scene painter named Louis Daguerre made photography practical. He honed his process in the 1830s and by 1850, there were more than 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone. Twenty years later, the impressionists began to play with light and form, exploring ways of seeing that photography, trapped in optical realism, couldn't. More radical experiments followed, and soon Kandinsky and Pollock were speeding into the distance, leaving recognizable form in their paint-spattered rearview mirrors.

Theater might undergo a similar metamorphosis at its fringes, where smart, creative minds exploit the unique possibilities of live performance. Expecting Seattle's whirlwind weekend to show off local pioneers at their best, I sailed into the fringe gale with two simple questions:

1. Does anybody come to see this stuff?

2. Would they be better off at the movies?

Happily, the answers are Yes and No, respectively. For the sake of accuracy, I brought test subjects to each event, friends who don't normally go to theater--they all had a great time. The seats were packed and we saw some genuinely good, funny stuff that you just can't find on TV.

We started with 14/48, a punishing artistic exercise in speed and endurance. The event invites seven playwrights to crank out short scripts on a given theme in one night and then hand them off the following morning to a team of actors and directors who rehearse for one day and perform the new plays that night. Then another theme is chosen--I saw "stupid ex-boyfriends"--and the whole process repeats.

The plays were great, eccentric fun. Honorable mention goes to Stupid Ex-Sonic, an extremely topical short about Seattle's ex-boyfriend Gary Payton and his awkward homecoming with the L.A. Lakers the night before. The script spliced original songs and commentary with replays from Friday's Sonics game, successfully translating a sports drama into a musical comedy that even the fartsiest arts crowd could appreciate.

Leaving 14/48, my date remarked that live theater is somehow funnier than TV--that the same jokes told onstage get bigger laughs than they would on a screen. There's something about the immediacy of real people doing comedy that makes it more potent. He couldn't explain why and neither can I, but it's true.

Regular cabarets Spin the Bottle and 12 Minutes Max were also great fun. Annex Theatre's Spin the Bottle featured a hilarious music routine by Burnt Studio, an erotic short story by Keri Healey, and a finger-puppet Macbeth. Interactive-theater master John Kaufmann delivered a slice of Line One, an upcoming performance of actors delivering monologues spontaneously fed to them via cell phone by other actors doing stuff outside the theater. That night, Kaufmann relayed holiday tales from Josef Krebs, who was sitting in his parents' Eastern Washington home.

January's dance-heavy edition of 12 Minutes Max was equally entertaining. Highlights included Amy Ragsdale as Vanna, an Albanian disciple of Olivia Newton-John who leads sing-along medleys of her icon's greatest hits, and a stunning solo dance by Daniel Linehan, who accompanied himself with humming, squeaking, and talking. The audience was also treated to the energetic and lovably bizarre Kurt Liebert, who performed the first half of his hilarious one-man musical, The Four-Fingered Man with the Hot Dog Bun.

This weekend's theater blitzkrieg has shamed me--I never should have doubted. Dozens of dogged artists turned one of the quietest weekends of the year into a great de facto fringe festival, and performed interesting, entertaining work that could only happen in a theater. From the Newton-John sing-alongs to Kaufmann's cell phone experiments, Seattle's theater artists proved that there are still plenty of things you just can't do on television.