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Saturday, July 26, 2014

THEATER REVIEW—"AN EVENING OF ONE ACTS" AT SEATTLE'S ACT THEATRE BRINGS MIXED REACTIONS


 Jessica Skerritt and David Foubert "Patter for the Floating Lady"
Photo: Chris Bennion

When I attended “An Evening of One Acts”—a trio of one-act plays at ACT Theatre, in Seattle, running through August 17—I never expected to also experience this trio of reactions: indifference, fascination, and irritation. Playwrights Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Sam Shepard, whose works appeared in that order, have all found fame and fortune in the world of theater and beyond. However, only Woody Allen’s play was worth my having left home knowing a good book sat on the lamp table beside my favorite chair. 

Martin’s “Patter for the Floating Lady” seems more about his need to work through a personal crisis than anything with a message relevant to others. A magician (David Foubert) explains endlessly why he wants to levitate a woman (Jessica Skerritt) with whom he has had a failed relationship. At first, the play teases with hints of Martin’s humor, then quickly flattens into a confusing and—I’m sorry to say—boring middle followed by a who-cares ending. Fortunately, it ends quickly, allowing more time for the next two plays, for better or worse. Or, perhaps I should say better and worse.

Chris Ensweiler and Eric Ray Anderson "Riverside Drive"
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Let’s start with better. Any discussion of Woody Allen’s merits as a writer and director, and/or human being, can divide a room full of people at a party faster than a skunk wandering in from an open door and sashaying through the crowd. Folks take sides, in a hurry. I don’t know the man personally, although we did once end up face-to-face in the hallway of Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle. I was on my way to the ladies’ room and he was on his way back to the stage to play clarinet with his jazz band. He walked between body guards and wouldn’t make eye contact. In spite him ignoring me completely, when it comes to his work, my opinion usually ranges from good to brilliant. In the case of “Riverside Drive,” the second play in the trio, I was spellbound. 

There’s something so fascinating about listening to the talk of people who are both highly intelligent and crazy. I’m not making light of mental illness. It’s just that there’s a fine line between so-called sanity and insanity, and part of the fascination is wondering who deserves which label. In “Riverside Drive,” a scruffy looking, presumably homeless man (Eric Ray Anderson) strikes up a conversation with a nervous married man (Chris Ensweiler) waiting at a park bench alongside a river to meet with his mistress (Jessica Skerritt) and break off their relationship. The overly talkative indigent won’t leave this nervous fellow alone. 

Eric Ray Anderson, Chris Ensweiler, and Jessica Skerritt "Riverside Drive"
Photo: Chris Bennion 
The married man is obviously a caricature of the playwright himself. All three actors perform their roles well, but Anderson delivers Allen’s perfectly crafted lines with a skill that captivates, as he draws one conclusion out of another in a convoluted but strangely logical, hilarious, and nightmarish sort of way. We watch him take control of the situation. This is Woody Allen at his best, his anxious character finding that each sentence he speaks somehow makes things go from bad to worse.

Eric Ray Anderson and Hana Lass "The Unseen Hand"
Photo: Chris Bennion
Speaking of worse, we finally come to Sam Shepard’s play, “The Unseen Hand,” a ridiculous sci-fi fantasy which takes place in a junkyard along a dessert highway in the American West during the 1960s. It opens at night with a man (Eric Ray Anderson) seen curled up in the back seat of a rusted 1959 Dodge convertible. Tufts of dry grass and litter surround it. The set and lighting were masterful, and it began with promising tension. The long wait for something to happen, for this man to at least move, had me intrigued. Was he dead or sleeping? Then, the growing roar of an approaching vehicle never seen, its headlights momentarily gliding across the darkened scene, built anticipation. However, that was merely the first of many cars and trucks to pass by in the night, as this man does awaken, drinks, and rambles on forever, as if talking to a ghost. 

In a story so whacky as this, it should have been no surprise that an alien being from another planet suddenly appears, even though it might not be clear at first just who or what he is. (I'm assuming it's a "he.") The alien wants the old guy to help free his enslaved people, although I wondered how he would know of him and why he thought this person could do the job. On his head is a tattoo of a hand ("The Unseen Hand"), the mark of his masters who can squeeze his  brain painfully should his thoughts stray into forbidden territory. 

Chris Ensweiler as Sycamore "The Unseen Hand"
Photo: Chris Bennion 
In addition to the drunk guy living in the apparently haunted car, the cast includes his returned-from-the-dead brothers, one looking like Wyatt Earp (Chris Ensweiler) and the other just a punk outlaw, (David Foubert). They seemed to have come straight out of the 1800s, even though they make references to twentieth century culture, an era in which their brother appears to belong. This added to an already confusing situation.

Quinn Armstrong as The Kid "The Unseen Hand"
Photo: Chris Bennion
The next one to crash the party, literally, is a young male high school cheerleader (Quinn Armstrong) complete with letter sweater, megaphone, and a passion for all things all-American. It seems he’s been the victim of some kind of hazing incident, then dumped off on the side of the road with his pants still down around his ankles. And folks, that’s just where they stay, for the duration. You will want to beg him to pull them up when you get tired of looking at what is not a pretty sight, one mercifully not shown in this press photo. 

His bare legs are covered with pale red stripes we are told are marks from a beating, but look like blood, and his sweater is stained also. When he turns around, we get to occasionally see his bare behind peeking out from under his shirt tail. He immediately begins to spew a long, loud stream of profanity,pummeling us with the "F" word, and tells more than we ever want to know about what happened to him. One of his distastefully graphic lines caused a wave of audible groans to drift across the auditorium. After his original tirade, he later jabbers in a manic fashion about the finer points of guerrilla warfare. Huh? My husband and I, who are not prudish and like comedy, wondered why this character appeared and what he was meant to contribute, other than to add to the steady and annoying buzz of nonsense that went on and on and never made a point or made us laugh. 

Hana Lass as Willie (The Space Freak) "The Unseen Hand"
Photo: Chris Bennion
It seemed obvious that Shepard meant for us to laugh while the gun toting brothers simultaneously tell the cheerleader to keep his hands in the air and also to pull up his trousers, but this play offers far more stupidity than humor. The script made no sense. In my opinion, it did not entertain, enlighten, or provide a new perspective. It did not cause me to feel anything but annoyance. Within the first five minutes, I wanted to go home because there was nothing in it for me. My husband felt the same. It brought up the subject of freedom and control, but beyond that, the explanation of this play must be left to those who will surely consider me ignorant, who see merit where I see none. Sorry, but I can’t help you. 

On Sam Shepard’s website, I found these quotes: 

"If plays were put in time capsules, future generations would get a sharp-toothed profile of life in the U.S. in the past decade and a half from the works of Sam Shepard."   ...Time Magazine
"One of our best and most challenging playwrights... His plays are a form of exorcism: magical, sometimes surreal rituals that grapple with the demonic forces in the American landscape."  ...Newsweek
"His plays are stunning in their originality, defiant and inscrutable." Esquire
I hope Shepard’s plays never do end up in a time capsule, because I’d hate for future generations to think his particular view is one all Americans share. Not all of us crave defiance and inscrutability or see how excessive profanity and crudeness improve art. That fact that something is original doesn't necessarily deem it good. Maybe we don’t feel the need to be shocked, sharp toothed, exorcized, or made to grapple with demonic forces. Can’t it not sometimes just be enough to laugh or cry or cringe for good reason, to be touched, moved, saddened or thrilled, and encouraged to look at things more deeply or in a different way? I have come away from this theater feeling enriched and uplifted more times than not. The idea of a triple billing appeals to me. I hope we see this again at ACT, but out of all the one-act plays available, this seems an odd mix. In spite of my feelings about the scripts, however, the actors excelled in every case.
To those of you who choose to see “An Evening of One Acts,” I only ask one thing; think for yourself rather than participate in pluralistic ignorance. You are not stupid. There are plenty of critics who would look down on me for having the audacity to dislike the work of the acclaimed Sam Shepard. We all see things differently. Who knows? Maybe you will love it. I did not.