Stephanie Timm writes plays that feel like parables, tweaking fairy tales, myths, and other familiar devices to get at the deeper, stranger currents running beneath everyday life. Crumbs Are Also Bread brought a mysterious stranger to a small town, On the Nature of Dust sent a "normal" teenage girl through a Kafka-like series of metamorphoses, and now Tails of Wasps documents a politician, his penis, and their predictable fall from grace. In a fit of fabulist irony, Timm has named her politician Frank.
We're all familiar with how a sex scandal plays out in public: the harshly lit press conference, the contrite politician, the humiliated but steely wife standing by his side, the rest of us wondering why the wives never ditch their high-profile philanderers. But Tails brings us uncomfortably close to the action, inviting us into the various hotel rooms where the fall takes place. Instead of renting a large suite for the production, director Darragh Kennan and designer Peter Dylan O'Connor stuck a large bed into an events room at ACT Theatre (whose carpeting, chandeliers, and large windows overlooking a street in downtown Seattle are uncannily hotel-like) and lined the walls with chairs for us to sit in. The lights are so bright, the actors are so close, and there are so many audience members packed into that room that we can't help but watch each other watch the play, making these top-secret intimacies feel as public and embarrassing as the press conference we know is just around the corner.
Paul Morgan Stetler plays Frank as a surprisingly sympathetic serial liar—his transgressions begin almost innocently, on the night he's elected, when a sweet and flustered campaign staffer (Brenda Joyner) confesses her admiration for and attraction to him. She's engaged, he's married, and they do a delightfully awkward verbal dance with nervous and nerdy detours into ancient Greek and which part of the brain controls our use of profanity. But they don't get much further than a kiss before their consciences—and some poorly timed phone calls—send them apart. The rest of the play follows Frank over the years, hiring different sex workers (Sylvie Davidson and Hannah Mootz) to help him try to get back to that moment when a woman who might have loved him slipped out the door. But his reach for that schoolboy feeling takes him to increasingly ugly depths in himself.
Tails, like Timm's other plays, are populated by characters that feel more like symbols than flesh-and-blood people who might be carrying a few surprises up their sleeves—which, for a parable, is totally permissible. Betsy Schwartz as Deborah, Frank's long-suffering wife, comes the closest to a fully realized human. Her devastating anger is both massive and mercurial, starting a sentence with a quiet observation ("A sex scandal is the worst possible thing to happen to a man in politics") and ending with a bellow ("The only one it's worse for is HIS WIFE! GOD! BLESS! AMERICA!") like an enormous flock of small birds that darts this way and that while blocking out the sun. Hannah Mootz as the second sex worker is the most caricatured, a crude and smudgy portrait of a drug-addled streetwalker, which is a little unfortunate. But even she has her moment of power—and, in the end, she is more earnest than frank.