Two thoughts swirled in my mind as I ducked out of Theater Off Jackson during the intermission of Bury Me Under I-5, a shadow puppet play produced by "Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes."
Thought #1: "I'M FREE. And I kinda want a margarita." Thought #2 "How long has 'Sgt. Rigsby' been boring people with this shadow puppet nonsense?"
I found my answer when I scrounged up the press release: "Creator Scot Augustson has been crafting shadow theater in Seattle for more than twenty years." Twenty. Years.
Here's more history from the release: "We first did them at a Printer's Devil Theater benefit at Re-bar in the summer of 1998, then once-a-month for five years at Annex Theatre’s late night cabaret Spin The Bottle. People went crazy for our decidedly-not-for-children puppets. Eventually the Rigsby alter ego emerged and Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes began creating full-length features.”
I wish the ruthlessness of capitalism on no artist (especially after seeing half of this play, which is essentially a string of origin stories about homeless animal-characters who live under I-5), but I wish the market would have somehow banished Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes into theatrical obsolescence before they started doing full-length features.
But no. The theater community has allowed this boring thing to persist, and now I must write a bratty review about only seeing half of one of their productions.
The only thing to look at onstage—besides the actors and Branden Romans strumming a guitar—is a cardboard façade with one large screen in the middle flanked by two smaller screens.
Behind the façade, Sgt. Rigsby and Ben Laurance sort of jiggle paper cutouts of animal-shaped characters in front of a light, and blurry silhouettes of those characters project onto the screens.
There are exactly three movements the "puppet masters" employ. They can flop the puppets over to make the characters look left or right, they can move them left/right/up/down, and they can fly them in or out of the scene. The constraints of the genre are humorously limiting for about five minutes, but after that I got bored looking at animal-shaped blobs on a screen and started dreaming about other things Augustson could have used. Socks, paper lunch sacks, or his own two hands would have opened up more dramatic/comedic possibilities than these fixed little blobs. I ended up getting frustrated and resting my eyes on the actors, who were lined up at a table reading their lines into old time-y microphones.
Most of the art in the performance lies in the voices of the actors—Kiki Abba, Brace Evans, Stephen Hando, and Jordi Montes—each of whom play multiple characters. Hando takes on the main role of Chicken Jenny, a witty, sassy, smokey-squeaky southern queen who's fallen on hard times. He's clearly got the character's ways and rhythms down, and it's a joy to hear him tell a story (again, for about five or 10 minutes) in the character's voice. Evans shined in a comedic role, though more modulation in his voice would have given his characters a little more depth. Abba and Montes nailed their parts, though they both at times struggled to produce convincing British accents.
But all that decent voice acting couldn't save the play, which ultimately contains its own best critique. At one point, one of the black smudges on the screen turns to one of the other black smudges on the screen and says something like, "It sounds like it's time for another long story about your past!"
In this moment, Augustson is consciously recognizing a major flaw in the script that he refuses to address. He's telling himself, through one of his characters, the whole (half of) the play is just smudgy animal shapes telling funny-but-tragic bar stories about their past to other smudgy animal shapes. Again and again and again. And then again, again.
If you're going to insist on working with a 2-D, extremely limiting medium like shadow puppetry, then you need to tell a story that moves along, a story where stuff happens. Otherwise you risk flatting the lives of the characters you're attempting to flesh out.
But not much happens, at least in the first act of Bury Me Under I-5. During the first 10 mins or so, Chicken Jenny meets an old friend and tells a long, funny-but-tragic story about how she wound up under the bridge. Then some tech people wander across the bridge en route to some exclusive tech bro party. One of the characters accidentally drops her phone over the bridge and then orders her friend to retrieve it. Her friend obliges. As she searches for the phone, she meets a bunch of other characters who tell their long, involved, funny-but-tragic stories about why they live beneath the bridge.
Of course, Auguston's heart is in the right place. It's clear he knows that people experience homelessness for a number of reasons. No two stories are exactly the same, and the fact that several paths on life's journey lead to a tent city (there but for the grace of God go I...) is part of the reason why a homelessness crisis is so difficult for municipalities to address.
The desire to elevate these peoples' lives through art at this time in Seattle's history is good and right and noble and true. But those people and their stories—at the very least—deserve an editor. Because in the script you see a writer who loves his own small bag of tricks—Augustson does know how to tell a wacky, character-driven story—more than he loves the larger thing he's trying to make.
Here comes the caveat: Normally, I would have forced myself to sit through the entire play, if only to prevent any counterarguments from devolving into a stupid conversation about manners and the conventions of theater criticism. But I'm fucking busy. And I don't need to remind any of you that we're living in the end times. What matters is that the show was so boring that I jettisoned my extremely engrained, Midwestern sense of duty to the art and embraced the cool night air. To readers thinking of trying out this show, I'd suggest you skip it and try something else.