The Gas Man

Empty Space Theatre

Through July 19. Herbert Bergel's rock operas have been lauded and lambasted on the same grounds. They're scattered, bizarre, stylized, and confusing. His revived version of The Gas Man, directed by Paul Willis, is of the same mold--abstract, funny, and raw as a saddle burn. A movie, an album, and now a play, The Gas Man is a fast-and-loose lark in musical theater that manages to be a lot of fun, despite a remarkably lo-fi aesthetic and occasional incomprehensibility.

The press release suggests a few themes--a girl named Feather moving to Vermont, a bully's reformation, kids buying used sound equipment, and a household with a gas leak, waiting for the play's namesake-hero. Of the four plots, I only caught the last two, and found several others to boot. More hors d'oeuvres table than full-course meal, The Gas Man is best enjoyed scene by scene, line by line. Clocking in at a chaotic 30 minutes, the play is an interesting venture that might have been penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber's weird, black-sheep nephew.

Magritte once wrote, "The banality of all things is the Mystery." The Gas Man hits just that note, distorting normal people doing normal things into a floating, surreal parade. The opera zigs and zags through everyday life like a panicked spider, occasionally pausing for a love song or two.

Sometimes The Gas Man is just a scenester's delight, with theater hipsters and oft-seens hee-hawing at comrades singing above or below their registers. With a giant rotating cast, every performance is a cameo--including luminaries like Stephen Hando, Nick Garrison, and members of Printer's Devil, Piece of Meat, and the Royal Famille DuCaniveaux. Once you shoulder past the self-consciously knowing chuckles, however, The Gas Man is a scattered, bizarre, stylized, and confusing delight. BRENDAN KILEY


Solo Voce Productions at the Leo K. Theatre

Through July 13. Only 10 people were in Ludiker's sad little audience. What a shame. Writer, director, and performer Fred O. Knipe wrote, directed, and performed his little heart out for not even enough people to fill one quarter of a single row in the Leo K. Theatre. Luckily, we 10 were very appreciative, laughing and applauding when appropriate. Even luckier for everyone concerned, our appreciation was genuine, not just an attempt to make the poor guy feel better.

Well, mostly.

Ludiker rambles, it's true. If you twisted my arm I might say that there is about a third less entertainment here than Knipe (a four-time Emmy winner) maybe thinks there is. That's not because of the character per se; the fault lies mainly with the script.

Ludiker is a one-man show, set as a lecture by Dr. Merlin F. Ludiker, a wacky little professor-type who introduces himself as something of a super genius and a "free-range savant." It quickly becomes apparent that he's really more of a deluded schizophrenic. He's a funny, amusing schizo, for sure, with his bushy Einstein mustache, duct-taped camelhair blazer, and quack theories on everything: organ transplants, global warming, stylish luggage. He has enough fake diplomas to choke a fake horse, he claims to be a blue-eyed Incan from a small, unknown planet that exists in our own atmosphere, and every now and again he grabs a gee-tar and breaks into song.

But no matter how quirky and amusing, schizophrenia has limited charm--especially when Ludiker loses focus and meanders from simply sharing his clever "pearls of wisdom" into "let me tell you about my ex-wife and kids" land. I can see why he did it, I can see where he was trying to go, but soon wooden smiles and stifled yawns began to blossom. But even with the distracting dysfunctional family side trips, Ludiker is clever, unusual, and funny enough to deserve a bigger piece of the audience pie. A much bigger piece. ADRIAN RYAN

Market Research Theatre

Annex Theatre at Union Garage

June 27-28. Last week, I wrote an article about Matt Fontaine's public-opinion stage experiment, Market Research Theatre. Now it's time to review the results--both research findings and artistic output. But first, a quick recapitulation:

Starting from the premise that the fringe community is too insular and out of touch with what most people enjoy seeing on stage, Fontaine applied techniques of business market research to the production of plays. With random surveys, focus groups, and test audiences, MRT triangulated three plays based on the artistic preferences of non-theatergoers. Last weekend's "results performance" gave final drafts of the plays and some data analysis.

Fontaine's number-crunching (nicely presented via PowerPoint) came to mostly unsurprising conclusions. For example: theater folks have a higher tolerance for experimental work, tragedy, and gallows humor. Non-theatergoers prefer light comedy, happy endings, and moral absolutism. I was interested to learn that theatergoers prefer stories about middle-class characters, while non-theatergoers said they wanted to see working-class characters--lending some credence to the stereotype of live theater as a bourgeois sport.

I'm no statistician, but MRT's data seemed disappointingly shaky. Fontaine said, despite peanut-gallery snickers, that any survey group over 30 is statistically valid--but his random sample of 39 respondents seems far too small to accurately reflect the opinions of Seattle's non-theatergoing public.

And the plays? I'm afraid they were as unsatisfying as the statistical conclusions. Despite (or perhaps because of) hard work and constant revision, the most popular, second-most popular, and least popular plays were equally mediocre. Though I've no data to support my opinion, let this serve as anecdotal evidence that good artistic output can't be statistically generated.

Nevertheless, Fontaine's ideas deserve further research--I would love to see MRT expand its funding and operations and try again. BRENDAN KILEY

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