Keep the Light On

Annex Theatre

Through March 8.

Here are three short plays about American exhaustion at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The exhaustion is caused by eight years of unremitting stupidity. The point from which this stupidity has radiated is the White House. To name the White House as the one source of the fatigue and anxieties in these plays might seem like a stretch. None of them directly names President Bush or the two wars or the current global economic turmoil as the cause of anything. In fact, we have no idea what catastrophe caused the actors in this performance to retreat to a fantastic place that's "off the grid" and receives all of its power from human energy—the electricity in the theater is produced by actors on bicycle generators. But it's not a matter of content (naming the catastrophe); it is a matter of feeling. This is how we look, act, and feel after eight years of stupidity radiating from the White House: exhausted.

Two of the three plays, 1001 and Foxy Populi, are comic; one, ElectriCity, is serious and dark. 1001, by Scot Augustson, is a verbal flash fire that consumes itself, its humor, its story, and leaves you wondering. The next play, Foxy Populi, by Elizabeth Heffron, is more physical than verbal and has as its mission the mockery of popular culture in the age of George W. Bush. ElectriCity, by Bret Fetzer and Juliet Waller Pruzan, takes us for a short ride through the ruins of the American family. None of the plays, directed by Ellie McKay, are disappointing, and the experience of watching all of them leaves you in a state of mind that those in the days of the Weimar Republic must have been in when they left their nightclubs and cabarets. Let's hope, however, that the way the Bush period ends this year is not the same as the way the Weimar Republic ended in 1933. CHARLES MUDEDE

100 Heartbreaks

CHAC Lower Level

Through March 1.

Country music is the music of poor white people, and like just about everything else, it lost all its dignity in the 1990s. There used to be a kind of bootstrap pride to the genre: I may be in pain, the songs declared, but this pain is all mine and nobody can take that away from me. 100 Heartbreaks, a new one-woman show, is a pleasant callback to that time, before country became the theme music of an empire built on willful ignorance.

Joanna Horowitz plays Charlane Tucker, an aspiring country star from Kentucky touring skeezy bars across post–Toby Keith America. Tucker is the kind of performer who's so eager to entertain that her enthusiasm is the main attraction. She belts out an awkward medley of classics—"Walkin' After Midnight," "I Walk the Line," "Walkin' the Floor Over You"—and cracks bad, local-color stage patter to make the audience feel special. She even brings her own giant American flag as a backdrop.

Over the course of the show, we learn that Tucker is trying to have her heart broken 100 times by 100 different men, in an effort to become an authentic, pained country singer. After all, she explains, "My mama always said, 'You ain't livin' if you ain't losin', and you ain't losin' if you ain't lovin'." Of course, somewhere before heartbreak number 50, Tucker has authentically fallen in love with a man and doesn't know what to do: Who ever heard of a happy country singer?

Horowitz wrote the play and many of the songs, and there's some really strong music here, particularly "One Man Closer to Nashville" and "One More Heartbreak for the Road." She's got a good voice for the brassy 1970s Loretta-and-Dolly-style country, and she can muster up a satisfying yodel, too. Tucker is sympathetic and charming.

Clocking in at just about an hour, though, the show does feel a little slight. Horowitz successfully addresses the authenticity themes, but the play's conflict is introduced and then resolved almost immediately, and a little more characterization in the last half—maybe as little as a few covers of some Hank Williams songs—would do wonders. Still, for those who love country, this is a pretty great cabaret that treats the genre lovingly, and with a surprising amount of pride. PAUL CONSTANT

By the Waters of Babylon

Seattle Repertory Theatre

Through March 2.

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If I had known that Suzanne Bouchard was in this two-person Cuban history lesson cum domestic-violence melodrama, I would have recused myself. Her whole persona—the naturally low voice with its occasional flourish of put-on vibrato, the bourgeois air that settles around her shoulders like a pashmina—gives me hives. But I failed to recuse myself, and to be fair, this performance is not her worst. She races through her lines to pounce on the lame quips that Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan has deposited at the ends, but overall this vaguely witchy Austin seductress, who has hired a Cuban gardener as much for his companionship as for his landscaping abilities, suits her skills. Mexican-American Armando Durán, who plays the gardener, is a very poor ambassador of Cuban dance, but otherwise, he's properly bewildered and aroused by his desperate, drunken employer.

The real problem with By the Waters of Babylon isn't the cast; it's the play. The press notes include this revealingly defensive argument: "It's true that writers tend to write what they know. But Schenkkan isn't a typical writer." Whatever. By the Waters of Babylon is exactly the palaver you'd expect from a liberal Seattleite telling liberal audiences in the Pacific Northwest that Cuba is neither a paradise nor a prison. Actual line spoken by Bouchard: "Now that we've established that I'm a horticulturally impaired bigot masquerading as an enlightened liberal...." Also: "What's a mojito?" Every Spanish line is awkwardly translated into English by the other actor—even in the throes of passion. The emotional peaks and valleys of the story feel abrupt and exaggerated. And the faux magical-realist ending is just painful. Authenticity may be overrated, but good writing isn't. ANNIE WAGNER