"Awesome," Seattle's avant-garage-comedy-musical-band project, has been promising and burgeoning for almost a decade now. It produces a new expressionist, eclectic-rock show every few years (Delaware, noSIGNAL, West), and each one almost ascends to the condition of genius. In "Awesome" shows, you can sense the divergent talents of the band's seven members—sometimes they cooperate to make something beautiful and sometimes they fight like seven cats in a bag. But each of those cats has greatness inside. Sometimes you wish you could admire just one or two at a time.
So it's no surprise that Mountain, by John Osebold (the composer, guitarist, and frontman of "Awesome") and Kirk Anderson (the drummer for same), feels like a cleaner, slimmer, distilled version of the usual "Awesome" hodgepodge.
For the past several years, Osebold has recorded a new (literal) bedroom record as a gift for family and friends. Those albums began as a private affair, but for Mountain he selected some of his secret songs and strung them together with vintage video footage: national parks, airplanes, coffee commercials, educational films, Mount Rainier, waterfalls, coniferous forests, housewives flirting and fighting with their husbands. Osebold has cut and flipped and slowed down and sped up the video samples into a marvelous collage that has its own internal structure and visual/acoustic jokes. And the songs—quiet, triumphant, about snowflakes and trade wars—add up to a winter concert that would satisfy fans of rock 'n' roll and/or chamber music. Mountain is saturated with the season, but in a pagan-animistic way: It fetishizes nature (ice, waterfalls, mountains) and domestic objects (coffee, scissors, wind chimes) the way some folks fetishize the Christ child.
Mountain will probably wind up being the best holiday show this year, but—for some insane reason—ACT is running Mountain for only two evenings in its basement cabaret space. Extend it, ACT. Or pick it up, On the Boards. Somebody should run this fresh, new, beautiful thing for weeks so you can all see it and ignore the glut of shopworn holiday porn the other theaters will try to shove down your throats.
Speaking of shopworn shows: For weeks, Seattle's theater community has been sneering and muttering about the Seattle Rep's production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, an Irish domestic drama written in 1990, slapped with a Tony Award in 1992, and already produced once by the Rep in the mid-'90s.
The sneering tends to go like this: Really? Dancing at Lughnasa AGAIN? Why? Does it really need another Seattle production? Is that the best the Rep could do for this slot in its season?
I dragged my feet to Seattle Rep last weekend, thinking similar thoughts. I like to stump for new plays, local plays, and the smashing of old idols encased in amber so we can get on with our lives and shock our theaters—and our audiences—back into life.
But I also like good plays, whatever their age and provenance, and I'll be damned if Dancing at Lughnasa (pronounced LOON-a-suh) wasn't a smashing pleasure—an old-fashioned pleasure, with sibling rivalry and kitchen sinks, but a pleasure nonetheless.
For those of you keeping track, it makes a marvelous companion piece to Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, currently playing on the Rep's smaller secondary stage. Both plays are about aging women in the 20th century as observed and commented upon by little boys who grow up to be playwrights. In Three Tall Women, Albee observes (and imagines) his mother (whom he didn't particularly like) at three different stages in her life: happy youth, raging middle age, and equanimous old age. In Dancing at Lughnasa, an adult narrator remembers being raised by his mother and four Irish aunts (he was born out of wedlock to a devoted mother and feckless father).
Both plays offer great roles for actresses but have opposite tones. Albee paints the middle-aged mother he knew as a bitter monster and subtextually laments that his childhood would've been happier if he'd been raised by the younger or older version. Friel, on the other hand, laments his childhood as a happiness he didn't fully appreciate—he remembers the summer of 1936, despite its dramas (about men, Catholicism, and economic hardship), as his family's peak, the moment just before the hammer fell on the family: illness, drunkenness, abandonment, poverty, death.
The two-act Dancing at Lughnasa confines itself to the kitchen and yard of the Mundy family, where the five sisters cook, knit gloves for money, joke, laugh, lie, fight, care for their brother Father Jack (a priest who has returned from two decades at a Ugandan leper colony with a bad case of malaria and a scrambled mind), and alternately dote on and ignore our young narrator, Michael Evans. A list of the sisters will serve as a tour of the play's plights (stay with me here).
Kate (Mari Nelson), the eldest, is a sanctimonious Catholic and schoolteacher who has the only steady job in the house and acts as the family matriarch and disciplinarian. Maggie (the phenomenally energetic and funny Gretchen Krich) is a joker and a smoker who plays the family cook, homemaker, and cheerer-upper—but, like all the sisters, she longs for a husband and a household of her own. Chris (Elizabeth Raetz), the narrator's mother, is a gorgeous romantic, cursed with beauty and strung between a natural pride and the shame of having her son out of wedlock. Rose (Cheyenne Casebier) has some kind of developmental disability and an ominous but unspecified relationship with a man she believes is in love with her. Agnes (Linda K. Morris) is Rose's confidante, a quiet sister who knits gloves for household money and seems to be carrying on a secret affair with Gerry (Troy Fischnaller), her sister's babydaddy, who drops by every year or so to charm Chris and Agnes while infuriating Kate's sense of piety and control.
Add Father Jack (Todd Jefferson Moore), who has cast aside his old Catholicism for the pagan ceremonies of Uganda (he extols how the villagers observed no separation between the sacred and the secular, much to pious Kate's dismay), plus some subplots about pagan Irish ceremonies and the festival of Lughnasa and whether or not Kate will permit her sisters to go to the big dance, and you've got a full dance card of trials, tribulations, and jokes.
But for all the knotty tangles of the sisters' lives, Dancing at Lughnasa is more atmospheric than plotty. Friel's energy as a writer concentrates itself in the sisters' small exchanges, their pregnant pauses, and the legendary emotional dexterity of the Irish, who can be weepingly funny and hysterically sad at the same time. (This peculiar dexterity may partly explain the long-standing cultural and political alliance between the Irish and the Jews—Google it.) And dancing! Let's not forget the dancing! The sisters break into a joyous/angry kitchen stomp to exorcise their frustrated rage, and the narrator's father lays sly ballroom seductions on both Chris and Agnes. The dancing is the best part of Dancing.
In a play that depends on mood, the performances are everything. This production of Dancing at Lughnasa delivers them—director Sheila Daniels (Crime and Punishment, The Last State) draws vibrant and distinct performances from each of her actors. Though the brevity of a review requires stereotyping characters (pious Kate, jolly Maggie, sweet and retarded Rose, et al.), each actor brings a performance that is as full and contradictory as life.
So, to answer the much-asked question: "Does Dancing at Lughnasa really need another Seattle production?" Sure, why not? For those of us who missed it in the mid-'90s (because we were distracted or because we were zygotes), this is an opportunity to see an excellent director guide excellent actors through a not-quite-excellent-but-still-damn-good script.
And Dancing at Lughnasa is a hell of a lot better than the Rep's last main-stage production, God of Carnage—which was far newer (2009) and infinitely crappier. Sometimes a good show is just a good show.