Speechless
Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave N, 325-6500.
Through Aug 24.

Ian Bell is a 33-year-old actor with a friendly mug, a stocky build, and a voice as deep and rich as a honky James Earl Jones. This voice boasts a remarkable elasticity, veering gracefully from muscular male diction (his spot-on Captain Kirk in AHA's late-'90s Star Drek) to sing-songy helium-speech (his spot-on caterpillar in the Money Tree TV ads). But in the new show by Bald Faced Lie--the sketch comedy troupe Bell co-founded in 1997 and has performed with ever since--he will use his voice to say exactly nothing.

"This is a show without verbal meaning," Bell tells me. "It's all sounds." He's speaking of Speechless, the new show conceived, written, and performed by Bald Faced Lie, opening August 4 at the Empty Space Theatre. Coming from another young comedy troupe, the idea of an all-sound- effects show would be an invitation to run for the hills. But for Bald Faced Lie, a seasoned seven-person comedy cell devoted to "comedy as art, rather than gimmick," the challenge of creating a comedy without words, without punch lines, without "k" sounds seems most promising.

"I hate to use the words," Bell says when I ask about Speechless, "but it's something like performance art." He recoils from the implication, like the good entertainer he is. When I press him further, he shuts up. All I can get him to reveal is the show's gestation time (six months of "table work," four weeks of rehearsal) and one of its scenarios, involving a man, a table, and a small mechanical pig.

Thankfully, Bell's much more forthcoming with his own story. Born and raised in Vancouver, Washington, Bell spent all 12 of his school years at Portland's private Catlin Gabel School, whose teachers were progressive enough not to call in a psychologist when eight-year-old Ian began coming to class in knickers and a tri-corner hat. ("It was 1976," he explains. "I was very into the Bicentennial.")

After a childhood of "doing magic tricks and skits with friends," Bell wrote and performed his first play in third grade. ("It was about Thanksgiving.") In fifth grade, his parents took him to see Marcel Marceau; that year he founded the Ian Bell Mime Group. "I was to be the next great French mime." But mime fell by the wayside as Bell discovered acting, first in high school ("I played Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace when I was 15"), then at Vermont's Bennington College, where he wrote and performed plays with his friend Pete Dinklage. After graduation, Dinklage and Bell headed for New York, where Dinklage found some success (most notably as the dream-sequence dwarf in the indie hit Living in Oblivion ) while Bell worried about running out of money.

In 1994 ("six months after Kurt Cobain died--I missed the grunge boom entirely") Bell brought himself back to the Northwest, and has been working his butt off ever since. After hooking up with the core group of Bald Faced Liars in the cast of Star Drek, the group cut its teeth on late-night runs at AHA and Annex, while Ian-the-actor kept auditioning--and kept getting cast. Over the past two years, Bell's drawn raves for his roles in the Empty Space's Dealer's Choice and Killer Joe--and drawn paychecks (along with the rest of Bald Faced Lie) from John Keister's ill-fated, post-Almost Live local TV comedy program The John Report with Bob, an iffy KIRO TV endeavor Bell now characterizes as "a good learning experience."

But foremost among Bell's extracurricular activities is the Brown Derby Series, the monthly staged-reading extravaganza Bell has produced and directed since 2000. Now in its second season, the Brown Derby Series packs Re-bar the last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of every month with screaming, drunken mobs eager to watch some of the city's brightest alterna-stars (Nick Garrison, Jackie & Ursula, many more) tear through some of cinema's most belovedly trashy screenplays (Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure). Following the theme "teen angst," the new season has seen the shredding of such Smiths-fan classics as Pretty in Pink and Heathers, with Sixteen Candles coming up at the end of August. "This is junk food comedy," Bell says of his beloved Brown Derby. "Other times, I do stone-ground wheat comedy."

Support The Stranger