Death, where is thy sting?

House of Dames' Nikki Appino brings us a story of sex, death, and bees with bouffants.

Director Nikki Appino admits that she has a reputation for high-class esoteric angst. In 1996's Djinn, she adapted for the stage Alain Robbe-Grillet's experimental novel that plays complex games with identity, memory, and the flow of time. Most recently at On the Boards there was the work-in-progress Lazarus, a dark meditation on the first uses of poison gas in the trenches of World War I. Both pieces were moody, filled with profound meditations on death, and used fog machines.

Beyond the Invasion of the Bee Girls

Richard Hugo House, 720-5252

October 15-November 8

"Just so everyone knows, we'll be using a fog machine in this one too," says the director, as we discuss her latest project. Still, Beyond the Invasion of the Bee Girls sounds a bit different from the sort of deep and atmospheric project that Appino is known for. Part of the difference comes with the shift that Appino has decided to make from freelance director to full-on producer. Since getting her BFA at New York University back in 1985, this energetic and fiercely intelligent artist (who studied with avant-garde theater gurus Jerzy Grotowski, Anne Bogart, and Joseph Chaikin, among others) has shuttled back and forth between coasts, more often than not focusing on scripts and projects of a serious and dark nature. You wouldn't necessarily know it to meet her; Appino's friendly and very funny, passionate about her work, but given to cracking jokes about her dream project, an "edgy" production of The Odd Couple.

That sense of humor must have been in full gear at a party back in the '80s, when she and her two friends Keith Miller and Cathy Lee Crane stumbled across a showing of the soft-core '70s cult classic Invasion of the Bee Girls. The story, written by Nicholas Myer (of Seven Percent Solution and Wrath of Khan fame), was "absolutely inspirationally bad," says Appino. But underneath the ludicrous story of bouffanted females who "sting" their male prey to death, she detected some potentially serious themes of death and sex, all the more resonant in the era of AIDS. The three artists began a collaboration on the piece that got as far as a workshop. Then the troika dissolved, and the other two artists left town.

After the critical and audience success of Djinn, Appino decided that the time was right to formalize the House of Dames. Up to then, the House had really just been Appino herself, a convenient title to be trotted out when she self-produced. Now what she wanted was an organization that could apply for full grants, present a semi-regular series of shows, and balance her commercial video work with the theater, which remains her first love. "Plus, I really wanted to formalize the working relationships I had going with A.C. Peterson, Jim Ragland, and some of the other folks that I'd been doing shows with."

As the process of making the House a "legit" company continued, Appino wanted to open a show as soon as possible. That's not an easy proposition for someone who routinely spends upwards of a year developing projects. But then she remembered Bee Girls: "It was about three-quarters of the way done, though we never really produced it. I decided to do an intensive workshop, cast it here, and bring Keith up here. There were some old Reagan jokes that had to go, but I figured we had plenty of time to work in stuff about media morality."

Working on a comedy is a relief and a terror at the same time for Appino. "It's fun to sit around and think, 'Where should I put in the butt joke?'" she says. "On dark days, though, I ask myself, 'Am I funny?'" She's made things easier on herself by assembling a cast that includes, as she says, some of the funniest people in Seattle, including Christina Mastin, Kevin Mesher, John Holyoke, and Sarah Harlett.

There are serious themes to Bee Girls, though Appino admits you might have to look hard to see them. Clearly the lightness of the project is something of a relief to her, and some of this enthusiasm has spilled over into plans for her next big project, a musical based on women's roller derbies. "Who wouldn't want to see that? A bunch of sexy women racing around on roller skates; we could probably charge admission to the rehearsals!" Part of what makes Appino's productions so appealing are the size and scope of her vision. "People respond to making a big expression. Everyone's getting tighter and cheaper and pinchier. Maybe people need big expressions from the theater, of beauty, and complexity, and intrigue, big statements where they can just go wow! It's live!" She pauses, then considers her personal vision again. "If I can have 14 chicks on skates, damn, that'll be a good time!"

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