Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through Feb 19.

The Chris Schussler Incident Printer's Devil Theatre at Chamber Theatre
Through Feb 19.

Edith's Head
Annex Theatre at Union Playhouse
Through Feb 12.

While everybody's talking about the appointment of New York freelance director David Esbjornson as the new Seattle Rep artistic director, outgoing artistic director Sharon Ott is signing out with a season that continues to surpass expectations. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Chicagoan Jonathan Wilson, is a sturdy rendition of the work that made August Wilson's reputation. The acting is strong (with one brief, and regrettably local, exception); Cynthia Jones as Ma Rainey and Alvin Keith as Levee particularly shine. And for once, there's reason to cheer a set at the Rep--not only does Scott Bradley's scenic design emphasize functionality over frills, and provide an understated backdrop to Ma Rainey's flapper flamboyance, it also places a lovely radiator in a prominent position downstage. I adore a pretty radiator.

Ma Rainey takes place in a 1920s recording studio as musicians prepare to record a new blues number by the titular star. It's a talk-heavy script and on opening night there were still some minor pacing difficulties. The early scenes, in which the backing band waits for Ma's arrival in the rehearsal basement, crackle with resentment and jumpy energy. But then Cynthia Jones blazes onstage in a teal and lavender getup and sucks the focus upstairs, and it's not until the second act that the ensemble regains its opening momentum.

The main weakness in this production is the music. I realize that it's tough to find good actors who are also good musicians, but it doesn't necessarily take chops to make the blues sound dirty. When a script calls for an actual song named after a legendary ass, the song better be fucking sexy. As the band tentatively plinks out the opening measures of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," you get a weird sense of foreboding. It isn't even going to chart, the unintended subtext whispers. There is no sex in that song.

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The title of Scot Augustson's new play, The Chris Schussler Incident, refers to the stuff school legends are made of: a sudden outburst in an eighth- grade earth sciences class. There's a splash of hydrochloric acid, the possible scarring of a teacher's face, and of course, Chris Schussler, the quietest girl at Cumbres Junior High in 1978. Of course it has to be earth sciences. In the tightly regimented context of junior high school, the violation of the unspoken social code would register as forcefully as plate tectonics.

So the strange thing about director Keri Healey's show is that the adult performers' gestures are bigger and more boisterous than you would expect from kids caught in a conformist, peer-run Panopticon. Stacey Plum sketches Tracy Bowersox--a bossy, curious girl who probably read too much Harriet the Spy as a kid--in broad, engaging strokes. Stephen Hando is wonderfully precise and expressive as Eric Olson, even if a similar boy at an actual junior high would have put most of his energy toward turning invisible. And though Susanna Burney, as Chris, can probably get away with more since her character has just "wigged out," she still seems oddly immune to mortification.

These larger-than-life performances make sense, though, if you accept the framing device of a well-adjusted adult woman looking back at a formative experience. These characters aren't children, and to be honest, eighth graders would probably hate the show. They are children as envisioned by adult imaginations--adults who both fear and envy their ignorance, indeterminate futures, and pint-size punishments for misbehavior. The show is more alive for this blurring of verisimilitude. Leave the realism for the movies (it wouldn't hurt to drop those cinematic "movement" interludes, either). The Chris Schussler Incident will send you back to a funny, brutal past you never knew you had.

* * *

Edith's Head, written and performed by Kelleen Conway Blanchard, is a one-woman manic episode. Dressed in an icing-pink party dress and little knitted bloomers, Blanchard's character Edith spins a story that keeps getting bigger and wilder and more complicated as it goes. It's like the scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch when Hansel sticks his little head in the oven, plus a sprinkle of Todd Browning's Freaks, taken to the umpteenth power and unraveled over the course of an hour. It's totally raucous and out of control, but it's probably pretty hilarious if you're inebriated. (I, sadly, went stone-cold sober.)

annie@thestranger.com

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