“If greatness were easy, everybody would be doing it.” Lucian Connole

First, for the doubters: Forgive the Satori Group its name. A bunch of theater kids naming their company after a bit of Buddhist enlightenment should give any reasonable person pause—as would the Salvation Theater, the Beltane Company, or the Five Pillars Players.

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A bad name can smother a worthy endeavor in its cradle, but the Satori Group has already proven itself strong and adventurous. Its members are throwing their young selves directly against two acute Seattle anxieties: first, whether this is a town you have to move away from if you want to make theater (Satori moved here from Cincinnati after taking reconnaissance field trips to Chicago, Austin, and other cities), and, more importantly, whether Seattle audiences care about new work (they've recently dedicated themselves to finding out). Not too shabby, considering that many of our older, homegrown companies have been too chicken to do the same.

Last weekend, Satori opened Winky, its adaptation of a short story by George Saunders. It's an ambitious choice, both because Winky largely takes place inside its characters' heads and because Saunders's short stories are more about mood than action. Saunders has picked up the torch left burning on the ground by Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Kennedy Toole. He writes sweet, sad satire about Americans, our stupidly reductive culture of ads and slogans, and our striving—and failure—to be better than we are.

Fiction has a freedom that theater lacks: It can easily jump between universes (from, say, the cockpit of a spaceship to the scalp of a policeman) in just a few sentences. But a play must work especially hard to break the physical continuity of things happening in the same room, on the same stage. For Winky, Satori found and colonized a loft in Pioneer Square where they built four different environments, use puppets and projections, and move their sets and their audience around to accommodate the story's authorial shifts (it keeps changing narrators). The result is a shape-shifting experience that knocks us off balance, sucking us into a world where a kitchen wall becomes a theme park, an alleyway becomes a video game, and stairways dance. (Saunders helped Satori with the adaptation and staging concepts. "He seemed excited that we were blowing out his story," said company member and lead adaptor Spike Friedman.)

Winky begins at a perverse self-help seminar called People of Power. A hype man whips up the real-life audience ("Let's get stoked! Woo!") before a smug motivational speaker named Tom Rodgers (Adam Standley) appears. He strides onstage with some action-movie music and cheesy theatrics, fake-fighting actors with shirts labeled "Whiny," "Self-Absorbed," and "Blames Her Fat on Others." It's a wry gesture to begin a play that heavily relies on theatrical trickery: winking at how easily people are manipulated by a few idiots on a stage.

Rodgers offers us two metaphors, oatmeal and crap. Oatmeal, Rodgers says, represents our soul in its pure state: "Every day your soul cries, 'Today, let me be oatmeal!'" But we let people crap in our oatmeal, polluting our souls and ruining our lives: "In real life, people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time—friends, coworkers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids—and that's exactly what you do. You say, 'Thanks so much!' You say, 'Crap away!'" The key to success, Rodgers declares with an arrogant flip of his long black bangs, is to do exactly what we want, to accommodate no one, to cut the oatmeal-crappers out of our lives.

Then a voice-over commands the audience to turn our chairs around. We're facing a small closet where a frustrated loser named Neil Yaniky (the round, ruddy, and appropriately pitiful Anthony Darnell) is having a private consultation with Rodgers. Together, they identify the person crapping in Yaniky's oatmeal—his sister, Winky. Her problems? "Too religious. Crazy-looking. Needs to get her own place." This Winky, by Yaniky's account, is a soul-sucking monster.

For the third transition, the audience walks around a corner into the Yaniky household, where the charmingly batty—and perhaps schizophrenic—Winky tries to clean up the kitchen for her brother but is constantly derailed by hallucinations. Actress Greta Wilson, with dyed white hair and an expressive, long-limbed body, waltzes airily through Winky's bright, distracting world. Roller coasters appear on the walls, stenciled geese come alive, and a sock she keeps on her shoulder dispenses advice. Winky sings and smiles while Yaniky storms home, chewing over past humiliations, determined to become a Person of Power. The two siblings are living on different planets, and their inevitable collision is both tragic and pathetic.

Satori's third ensemble-generated piece, and its first in Seattle, Winky is a collection of strong ideas with a few rough edges. The puppetry, video, and set changes mostly succeed, giving the play the light-footed freedom of fiction, despite a few clunky transitions. ("It was a little bumpy," one cast member quietly confessed to a friend in a hallway after opening night.)

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The direction (by Caitlin Sullivan) and acting are strong, particularly Darnell as Yaniky and Standley as the smug self-help shyster. Spike Friedman's adaptation re­­­­arranges some of Winky's narrative furniture to good effect. An audience's attention, for example, is different from a reader's: Winky-­the-­play foreshadows and echoes bits of inner monologue that the story only mentions once. But the script bogs down in the overlong third and fourth sections—solo passages with Winky and Yaniky—leaving the actors to twist in the wind.

Winky may not be the fullest flowering of Satori's potential, but it's a rewarding (and often ruefully funny) experiment in blowing down old walls and building up new ones. Let the Satori Group be an example to the rest of us. recommended