The UMO Ensemble has made six full-length shows over the past 20 years, including an aerial adaptation of Rapunzel's love triangle and a red-nosed clowning collection of Zen and Sufi tales. (Hippies.) But its first full-length work was its most indelible: El Dorado, a seemingly chaotic but secretly exquisite reenactment of conquistador stories told by "buffoons"—lumpy green creatures that squabble across the stage and through a sad and violent history. That was 18 years ago, but UMO has picked El Dorado above the rest to celebrate the ensemble's china anniversary. Good choice.
Several of the original UMO members studied at Jacques Lecoq's renowned school for acting and mime in Paris (other students include director Julie Taymor, the Swiss mimes of Mummenschanz, actor Geoffrey Rush, and neo-vaudeville treasure Avner the Eccentric). UMO's buffoons are their clownish, Lecoq-influenced alter egos—or, more accurately, ids. Greedy and childish, the buffoons throw tantrums, harass each other, and are easily distracted by a little food, gold, or sensual stroking. A cross between Shakespearean court fools and muttering goblins, they are perfect vehicles for the myth of El Dorado and the insanity of conquistadors who wasted thousands of lives hunting down a golden city that never existed. (Only two of the original six buffoons, Janet McAlpin and David Godsey, are still in the show. The other three—Lyam White, Kajsa Ingemansson, and Mik Kuhlman—are newcomers, but fully embrace the spirit and style of the original ensemble.)
The buffoons begin by wandering onto a bare stage, humming and la-la-la-ing while a musician (Marchette duBois, credited in the program as their "pet") sprawls among her toys—rain sticks, drums, bullroarers, a didgeridoo, and other instruments—to produce the strange sounds of oceans, jungles, Inca cities, and other exotic places the buffoons will stumble into on their fatal fool's errand. The buffoons roll and stretch across the stage, becoming Atlantic rollers and—as one lifts herself into the cobra yoga pose (hippies!)—the prow of a ship.
They land in the New World and read the "Requirement," a real-life but absurd document written in 1513 by the Council of Castile that requests its hearers to drop what they're doing and convert to Catholicism and Spanish fealty. If they do not, the warty green goblins recite, "We protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us." Thus begins the buffoons' history of colonization.
They trundle haphazardly through the continent, debating whether Indians have souls, following rumors of a "gilded king" who dumps treasure into a lake to appease the "demon" that lives there, fighting with staffs, claiming the Pacific Ocean for the King of Spain, and occasionally breaking to sing, dance, and pet each others' erogenous zones. (The buffoons, the program warns, are "not chrono-logical." They are also polymorphously perverse.)
They occasionally speak complete thoughts ("A condor falls lifeless into his plaza of happiness—the prophets are executed" and "They brought with them religion and other diseases"), but most of El Dorado's 70 minutes are given to goofing on the conquistador theme, with sudden, sharp moments of disarming poignancy—it's all fun and games until the buffoons read their "Requirement" to the audience and squeeze through the crowd, plucking away what they like. (Among the pilfered items: purses, sunglasses, scarves, canes, and wallets.) UMO, like Werner Herzog in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, presents the history of South American conquest not as a historical anomaly, but as an indictment of fundamental human folly. But the members of UMO, being clowns from Vashon Island (i.e., hippies) instead of a Wagnerian filmmaker from Munich, have more fun.
El Dorado helps bring a summer of reminiscence and nostalgia in Seattle theater to a close. Over the past few months, companies have reached back to restage past successes: UMO; Brian Kooser's revival of Frankenocchio (his cirque-noir puppet show from 2004); Annex Theatre's Clubfoot... or Tales from the Back of an Ambulance (a collection of vignettes from their EMT-turned-managing-director that premiered in 2005); plus revivals of The Laramie Project by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, The Cider House Rules by Book-It, Art (as execrable this June as it was in 1996) by a new fringe company, and so on.
Even this summer's new works have felt familiar: Mike Daisey brought another story from his restless inquiries into technology and economy (this one about Steve Jobs and his Chinese factories), Steven Dietz wrote and directed another carefully crafted and suspenseful play about individuals looking for the truth (this time starring 9/11 conspiracy theories), Contemporary Classics staged a "new" musical called The Yellow Wood that revisited learning-and-growing themes in the belting, razzle-dazzle Broadway tones of so many musicals past.
So let us take a moment to anticipate the novelty we are promised this fall: Sextet, a new play by Tommy Smith about the doomed love lives of Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, and Carlo Gesualdo at Washington Ensemble Theatre. Coming to On the Boards this October, b.c., janvier 1545, fontainebleau by French weirdo Christian Rizzo (involving a bunny mask, black stilettos, and a 16th-century sculpture of a nymph). And a new adaptation of The Scarlet Letter by Naomi Iizuka and directed by Lear deBessonet, both of whom have ties to Anne Bogart and SITI Company (whose shows can be stiff and academic, but discussing their idea of what new theater should look like is always an invigorating—and sometimes exasperating—exercise).
Until then, you could do worse than pass the time with El Dorado. It's the best show of UMO's repertoire, and its tragic comedy about greed and gluttony is, unfortunately, evergreen.