The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 443-2222.
Tues-Sun at 7:30, Sat-Sun matinees at 2; $18-$45.
(Special 2 pm matinee on Wed Oct 4.) Through Oct 7.

Lily Tomlin is a victim of her own success. The absurd yet topical humor of her show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was pretty of-the-moment and eye-opening in 1985, but within a few years it was the dominant comic mode of all the hippest TV shows, from Seinfeld to Frasier to even The Simpsons. This is character-based standup comedy; it's rare that more than five sentences go by without a punch line. It's still funny--writer Jane Wagner has a fine grip on her wry, conceptual twists, and Lily Tomlin is Lily Tomlin--but in a comfortable, familiar way, not a surprising, different-perspective way. The show has dated less in its references than in its texture.

What remains is Tomlin's talent--not just her precise mimetic skills, but her astonishing ability to inhabit her characters. She's been doing this show on and off for 15 years, and every character still seems fully present, never phoned in. Tomlin's been doing Trudy, the philosophical bag lady, for longer than that, and yet Trudy still means something to her, still allows her to articulate some aspect of herself that's very much active and alive. Other characters include Agnus Angst, a 15-year-old performance artist; a former disco guy who wonders what became of his donated sperm; Kate, a jaded socialite who seems to look forward to literally dying of boredom; and Lyn, through whom we experience virtually the entire women's movement up to the '80s (one of the more distressing aspects of the show is how little dated the end of that particular storyline is). The characters interconnect in clever ways that make the show something of a play and give it some scope, but in the end I'm more struck with Tomlin than the script. BRET FETZER

Figgy Dance

At the Chamber Theater
last weekend; if you didn't see it, then you missed it.

This evening of dance movement from longtime local performer and dance instructor Ronly Blau kept fast to a theme as her dancers, all performing solos, worked through sequences that were by turns comic and sobering. Blau featured lots of little shaking, quick hand and arm movements reminiscent of insects--rhythms so mysterious they seem unquestionably right. Much of the work, in fact, bluntly described the mystery of nature, sex, and development, as in Letting by Light, which Blau performed, eight months pregnant, in a see-through gown. All of Blau's dancers (Lisa Thompson, Kristin Hapke, and Sheri Cohen) brought wickedly sly, finely tuned facial expressions to their pieces while executing the arrays of movements well. Once the Happy Apple Falls, performed engagingly by Hapke upon an apple-strewn stage, was a two-part tale of innocence followed by maturity and a child's realization of the fecundity and breadth of the world.

The evening's strongest piece, Crooked Girl (approximate sex pot), was also an exploration of innocence versus experience. In a platinum wig and black fishnets and lingerie, Sheri Cohen struck poses reminiscent of Cindy Sherman shots, lolling about and posing on large blocks under blinking lights that at moments creepily evoked porn, or maybe a snuff film. But a few sudden, well-timed bland smiles brought the piece back to comedy; Cohen strikingly conveyed various expressions of female pain and enjoyment as they play out in this culture. Unfortunately, the set blocks were painted with fragmented women's body parts, making the message, or what appeared to be the message, far too obvious. Blau's work has an innocent quality that is her strength, and strengths must be tempered or countered in order to highlight and maximize them. But she seems well on her way to doing this, if the sharp Crooked Girl is any indication. STACEY LEVINE

Table Work

A Theater Under the Influence at the Union Garage,
1418 10th Ave, 720-1942. Thurs-Sat at 8; $12,
all Thursdays are pay-what-you-will. Through Oct 14.

Collecting four one-acts into a single show because they all happen to have a table in them is, from a thematic perspective, confusing. On the other hand, it provides appropriately arbitrary criteria for a broad but blundering survey of playwrights. Inconsistent but sometimes enjoyable, Table Work at the Union Garage is an equally uneven survey of the local talent pool.

The collection starts off weakly with The Informer by Bertolt Brecht, about the paranoia of living in newly Nazified Germany. I hate to sound callous, but blah, blah, blah. We've seen it before and we've seen it done better. Actors and directors of Seattle: Beware the over-heavy topic. Art that trades in heavy ideas and emotions is just so damn painful when done poorly, because the disparity between the ideal and the reality gapes so wide.

I blame Informer's stiff, artificial tone on the director, simply because a cardboard Deniece Bleha does so well in her more challenging, speechless role in the third piece, The Stronger, by August Strindberg. But it was pieces two and four that really caught me. Much more touching, but by less hallowed writers, Rex by Joe Pintauro and Sam Shepard's Action were Table Work's gems.

A rousing send-up of two wealthy liberal-Buddhist-vegetarians, Rex allows their mindless consumerism, inner contradiction, and all-around stupidity tell the jokes by themselves, while actors James Cowan and Shannon Kipp make great vehicles for satirical pathos. Rex is funny because it's true. Action, on the other hand, was great because it was so untrue. Favoring inner psychology and uninhibited, monologuing characters, the audience sees only four people, each with a different neurosis in the middle of a dirt-poor holiday. They look and talk like unprepared subsistence farmers, or unfortunate survivors in the midst of a nuclear winter. Regardless, director Tobin Maheras' outstanding sense of choreography does well by Shepard's weirdness-in-banality aesthetic. BRENDAN KILEY