Over the summer, Gabriel Baron briefly played a pinball. It was, in an odd way, the ideal role for one of Seattle's most gifted actors. Baron is small and fast. Whether stretched out like a board or bunched up like a potato bug, he has the force and direction of a vector, and it was strangely satisfying to imagine him whizzing through a mechanical playground, accompanied by bells and thwacks and bumpers that light up when they're hit.
The strength of this impersonation (a role-within-the-role of Tiny in Archangels Don't Play Pinball at Capitol Hill Arts Center), however hilariously insignificant it seemed at the time, lies in the sort of paradox that sustains all fascinating performers. Gabriel Baron makes for a highly disciplined clown. Clowning and discipline might not have seemed contradictory when commedia dell'arte was at its peak of popularity in the 17th or 18th centuries, or even during the silent-movie era, when stars like Charlie Chaplin (whom, not coincidentally, Baron idolizes) were ascendant, but today our most popular clowns tend to be creepy failures like Krusty or victims of reality in the mold of Napoleon Dynamite or William Hung of American Idol. We expect our clowns to hit their marks, but unsteadily, with a chaser of pain or humiliation. Baron is closer to Bill Irwin. He lets us glimpse the control behind the slapstick and the purpose beyond the hilarity. As Seattle Times critic Misha Berson put it, "Praise the angels the role is in the hands of adroit Seattle actor Gabriel Baron—who may just be a reincarnated commedia buffoon himself."
Archangels Don't Play Pinball, a digressive play by radical playwright Dario Fo, was first performed in postwar Italy. By Baron's admission, "Archangels is one of Fo's early scripts, before he really hit his stride. It's not as streamlined, not as succinct, not as relevant as Accidental Death of an Anarchist," a later Fo play that Baron directed shortly after starring in Archangels. The satire in Archangels is aimed (hurled may be a better word) at a state bureaucracy with fascistic overtones. In the production at Capitol Hill Arts Center, the direction wasn't strong enough to communicate that message. But through Baron's controlled performance we could infer the point: his character wasn't bouncing around willy-nilly. There was a powerful, even sinister force at the flippers.
Baron had the chance to show CHAC how Dario Fo ought to be done when he took the directorial reins of the more sophisticated Accidental Death of an Anarchist for Strawberry Theatre Workshop this fall. Taut where Archangels was slack and brisk when the previous production wandered, his fiercely contemporary production of Accidental Death told the story of a 1969 police interrogation gone wrong. In the play, a "histromaniac" with a passion for impersonation gets curious about the supposedly accidental death of a bombing suspect. After affecting the dress and manner of a judge assigned to look into the matter, he leads the police officers into a hilarious, slapstick demonstration of their own guilt. It was the first theater production I've seen that's come even close to addressing the fear and failure of empathy that gave rise to the horrors at Abu Ghraib—and it accomplished this feat while the audience was cackling at a perfect gag ballet involving a coiled telephone cord. Baron says he "agree[s] wholeheartedly with the Fo thesis that any serious matter is best accepted by the audience when it's accompanied by laughter." His tightly wound production of Accidental Death had me convinced.
Though Baron's instinct for physical comedy is unerring, his abilities are varied and extend to a dizzying array of genres. This year saw Baron's debut on one of Seattle's "big three" stages, in the role of the adolescent intellectual Danny Saunders in an adaptation of Chaim Potok's young-adult novel The Chosen. The heightened teen drama of the play could have easily tipped toward the mawkish, but Baron's heart-stopping passion in the role transcended the source material and—perhaps more impressively—catapulted his character's intellectual values into powerfully legible theater. In Fellow Passengers, an unconventional and surprisingly smart adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Baron's fearful, trembling Scrooge was equally riveting. And though most of his work in the past year has been as an actor or director, he was also a cofounder of the theater company Collaborator, where he helped to write and develop popular shows like Extropia and Paper Airplane.
Since graduating from Cornish in 2000, Baron has been working nonstop, relentlessly pushing himself in directions that other actors wouldn't even consider. On the evening of the Genius Awards, he won't be in Seattle. He'll be dancing on a red square of carpet in Manhattan, the latest stop in local dance troupe locust's spoke-shaped tour (which includes Helena and Portland as well as New York). The piece, choreographed by Amy O'Neal, is entitled convenience, and it's about Velcro and roller skates and low-budget commercials and watching yourself wait. In the segment with the carpet squares, performers are arranged in a row at the back of the stage. Boxed into personal columns of light, the dancers follow a single pattern of movement, each a quarter-step off from his neighbor. This show is Baron's dance debut, but when I saw it in January at On the Boards, I could hardly keep my eyes off him. His compact intensity acts like a sponge for your gaze.
Offstage, Baron isn't nearly so comfortable with attention. When I ask him about his work, he's serious but distractible, happy to change the subject to artists he admires (Chaplin and Fo as well as inspiring locals like the collective Washington Ensemble Theatre and monologuist Alan Johnson). In an interview at a coffee shop, he guilelessly delayed the first volley of questions by fixating on a brown bird perched on the back of a chair. There wasn't an open window in sight, but the bird was unperturbed and perfectly still. On another occasion, he stopped himself mid-sentence (the sentence was about his acting technique) to point out a tiny dog pushing a large lavender ball easily twice its size through the grass. He's constantly gauging relations in space and amusing himself with physical incongruities—he snatches wonder and comedy out of thin air.
Baron works in theater full-time and has jobs lined up through the spring, including roles in Restoration Comedy at the Rep and as the lead character in Steven Dietz's new children's play, Honus & Me, at Seattle Children's Theatre, but in his fifth year out of art school, his philosophy toward life is becoming a bit less heated. A performer who realizes reality isn't just a poor substitute for the stage, Baron is constantly looking outward and measuring art against its sources of inspiration. Often, it's theater that comes up wanting. "What's more important than art?" he asks rhetorically. "Everything."