Extropia

Collaborator Productions

Through July 31.

Psycho Beach Party

Northwest Actors Studio

Through July 31.

Shock Brigades: Women in Combat

JEM Arts Center

Through July 25.

Doing live theater without live music is like cooking without salt and pepper--you can do it, but why? Collaborator's Extropia takes music as its very subject. In an over-regulated, work-obsessed society, music doesn't exist; when a factory worker named Foster hears rhythms in the clanks and whirrs of the shoe-making machinery, it's treated as a psychological aberration by his conventional wife and managers. He first finds kinship in a similarly afflicted coworker, but her good intentions threaten to ruin Foster's life. Extropia's dystopic plot doesn't hold up to rigorous examination--it's hard to imagine how music got lost, or how it wouldn't have been discovered in a pre-industrial age, and as a metaphor it's simultaneously obvious and murky--but the ideas are actually there to serve the means of production. Like the troupe's recent show Paper Airplane, Extropia has no set or props; the performers create almost everything in their world--from toothbrushes to training films--through a combination of mime and sound created by an offstage pair of dynamic musicians, Michael McQuilken and Brant Campbell. The result is the mutant offspring of George Orwell, Buster Keaton, and percussion-minded Sun Ra.

Extropia has been reworked from its previous incarnation at Re-bar; now at Cornish's Raisbeck Performance Hall (the former Timberline), the first act could stand tightening and more of the screwball humor that periodically erupts, but the second act rips along, balancing comic musical chaos and a sweet, sad love story. The acting ensemble is solid throughout, with Rhonda Soikowski standing out as both the wife and the squeaky, sympathetic coworker.

Members of the local band House on a Hill provide a live space-surf musical score for Psycho Beach Party, Charles Busch's camp fusion of 1960s beach movies, Hitchcockian psychology, and full-body shaving. Director Margot Bordelon has whipped this fluff into a towering, frivolous meringue, driving her enthusiastic, high-energy cast at top speed through dance numbers, schizophrenic freakouts, half a dozen preposterous plot twists, and homoerotic fumblings (the show has plenty to tantalize all sexes and inclinations--there's something absurdly sexy about tight, skimpy swimwear under stage lights). The entire ensemble latches on to the broad yet precise scenery-chewing performance style, but Emily Chisholm, playing a surfer girl with a multiple personality, turns Psycho Beach Party from funny to fantastic. She practically explodes out of her own impish body as she bounces, scampers, and writhes all over Northwest Actors Studio. Everyone has his or her high points (I was particularly entertained by Annalyn Lehnig's dorky lesbian yearnings), but Chisholm is the engine that gives this production maximum thrust.

From the first notes of the South African protest song that opens the show, Shock Brigades claims possession of the raw, industrial performance space of JEM Arts Center in Georgetown. This performance piece weaves together stories of women in combat, moving fluidly back and forth between a Soviet air-force brigade in WWII, Nicaraguan Sandinistas, South Africans struggling against apartheid, Jewish ghetto resistance fighters, and troops fighting the U.S. in the Vietnam War. The narrative may move a little too fluidly; there were times that the campaigns blurred together and I wasn't sure if it was a Sandinista or a Jew struggling across the battlefield. But when the circumstances are clear, the material--assembled from first-person narratives and historical documents, describing training and combat experiences, triumphs and losses--is powerful stuff, performed with commitment and what can only be described as military precision. The production uses only some ladders, sticks, and a handful of lighting instruments, but director/adapter Sheila Daniels crafts striking visual images from these simple means. One reservation: As Shock Brigades roared forward, I began to hunger for a story that made me question whether I condoned these women's actions, rather than simply playing on my liberal sympathies. As one South African was being brutally interrogated, she kept trying to catch the eye of another woman in the room, on the government side. Who was that woman? What were her reasons for being there? A story that troubled my conscience would have heightened the valor displayed in these easily acceptable (at least, from a left-wing perspective) conflicts and made Shock Brigades even more affecting.

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