Northwest New Works
On the Boards
100 W Roy St, 217-9888.
The show ended last week. You're too late.

THE BRASH, momentary nature of dance lends itself well to choreographic gnashing against the medium's boundaries, so acts of broadening and redefinition can be forceful and vivid. A sampling from On the Boards' Northwest New Works festival last weekend proved this to be true. Garrett Fisher's History of America in One Act, a piece of original opera combined with bare, scant movements between two performers, had the narrative asset of being about one historical and blunt factoid: Thomas Jefferson slept with and had children by his slave Sally Hemings. The short piece presented fragmentary, watery film shots, nicely piercing the layered voices of the singers. The presence of one black and one white performer moving onstage in Civil War-era costumes, though, evoked issues of slavery and race relations significantly enough; employing the Hemings figure as the birth mother to all of slavery's nasty cultural legacies seemed heavy and overdramatic.

The Crispin Spaeth Dance Group's Engine Anthem was powered by an amazing, guts-forward score dominated by local whiz Amy Denio. Though purported to be about American innovation and cars, the piece seemed just as much about our tendency to affix to patterns we know, and about the strain of change. In contrast to earlier works, Spaeth refined her movement vocabulary, and the piece held some surprises. Displaying excellent and Romanesque profiles as they charged, slid, and yanked themselves around the stage, Spaeth's seven dancers gathered in sometimes-thrilling configurations that lasted only for an instant, then fluidly, organically melted away -- a reminder of the dance's startling capacity to color gaps that language cannot fill. George Lugg's precise twists and subtle stage exits were astringent and tart -- a treat. Sara Jinks and Johanna Hulick's entwined duos movements had delirious chemistry.

Anybird, Peggy Piacenza's solo piece, offered homage to a grandfather who made delicate bird cages, featuring a large, colorful setpiece, filled at its center by smooth, rear-projected animation. Piacenza's character, a comically nervous heroine, offered her the chance to use birdy, fluttery-spastic, truly personal choreography that contrasted frankly with Spaeth's athletic forms -- a terrific side-by-side. Narrative surprises like the sudden eruption of a toaster and a spell of soft, spoken babble were strikingly placed throughout the piece. STACEY LEVINE

Pieces of the First
Seattle Mime Theatre
915 E Pine St, Fourth Floor (in the Oddfellows Hall), 324-8788, Thurs-Sun at 8, through May 14. $15; Thurs is pay-what-you-can.

NEVER TRUST A SHOW that bills itself as "wild" and "irreverent." Unsurprisingly, the best scene in Seattle Mime Theatre's First Amendment revue, Pieces of the First, is neither. In a deconstruction of the Scopes "Monkey Trial," Pete McBryan plays a blindfolded William Jennings Bryan led verbally and physically through a cross-examination of his religious views by K. Brian Neel's Clarence Darrow. This blunt demolition works because of its appropriateness to the target -- as McBryan is able to maneuver around the stage because chairs and tables are moved so that he doesn't fall, so was Bryan's willful lack of vision and insight supported by the political and cultural realities of his time.

Director Neel and a talented cast fail to maintain this level of analysis throughout, despite an admirably complex and demanding approach to language and movement. Pieces of the First marries original sources from free- speech court cases and related fictional works to movement, styles of speech, overlapping dialogue, and even secondary texts that highlight the core hypocrisies and hang-ups of the censorious forces on hand. Though the result is a series of articulate lampoons, these broadsides never come close to making a compelling case for the necessity of the potentially banned speech -- the searing, enlightening, and often life-changing value of controversial and troublesome expression -- and at the same time fail to make the more nuanced point that even banal or worthless speech must be afforded the same protection. In its place, we get reminder after reminder that censors are tight-asses who just don't get it.

The show concludes with a flag-burning in celebration of our right to burn flags. Pieces of the First thus ironically invests that action with the same sort of symbolic shorthand that many constitutional-ban advocates claim for an unburned flag. That's not speech; it's a pose. William Jennings Bryan was a populist who mastered the art of telling people the truths they already knew; free speech advocacy calls for deeper, closer attention to its fundamental value. TOM SPURGEON

Unidentified Flying Object
Northwest Actors Studio
1100 E Pike St, 324-6328, Fri-Sat at 8, Sun at 7, through May 20. $10 ($8 students/seniors).

THE ARRESTING IMAGE at the center of Unidentified Flying Object says more about the one-man show than writer Anthony Curry may realize. At several points during his performance, Curry mimics the primary obsession of his autistic toddler, Adam. He pushes his arms furiously up and down in a parody of flight, accompanied by a spinning plate. It's an affecting, intense impersonation, the result of several years of observation, and is at once harmless, amusing, and foreign. Nothing in the rest of the show matches it.

The study of a father's relationship with an autistic child should be perfect material for a one-man show. Connecting with the audience is everything for an actor in a solo piece, while an autistic child is unable to make connections. A father's ordeal may isolate him from family, friends, and other means of support -- how better to show that than by standing alone on stage? And since so little about autism is known, the topic presents unique opportunities for the kind of revelatory experiences that distinguish great plays. When Curry focuses on the details of his child's development -- how lucky he was to have a child that slept so easily -- and his own incremental sense of dread, Unidentified Flying Object fascinates.

Curry diminishes the impact of his show by surrounding these intimate details with narrative dross. Humorous asides about a father's neuroses may help more people relate to the show, but Curry's material lacks the insight necessary to justify its inclusion; it feels standard, cribbed from a television show. The show's musical numbers also feel tacked on. Curry uses the music to explore feelings of alienation and otherness in the literal terms hinted at in the title. Unfortunately, the songs don't add anything but simplistic affirmations of that main point. At times, Unidentified Flying Object seems less about a man's unique relationship with his son than an actor's faith in the entirety of theatrical enterprise to tell a simple story. A compelling one-act show may be lost in the unwieldy universe Curry brings to the stage. TOM SPURGEON