The Secret in the Wings

Also: My Boat to Bainbridge.

The Secret in the Wings

Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., March 26

Director Mary Zimmerman recently told me that as a student she was inspired by experimental German choreographer Pina Bausch.

"I saw a piece called Arien at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that was so emotional without being narrative," she recalled. "You assigned narrative to it, even though, for the most part, there was no talking. And there's sometimes a kind of random or chaotic feeling in her work that isn't random or chaotic but feels as though it is."

The Bausch influence is more present than ever in The Secret in the Wings, an early Zimmerman piece that has been reworked and is now touring. Though it's filled with talking and makes occasional use of music and song, Wings is a sometimes random, chaotic creation that would rather find order from emotion than any kind of linear storytelling. It's a dark, surreal wade through the muddier parts of our minds, a dance into the dread and desires that fuel what we casually dismiss as our "fairy tales." Whether it has the resonance of her Tony-winning Metamorphoses is debatable; you don't leave the theater with the same awe and secular uplift. But that Ovid adaptation had the arguably easier task of wanting us to know something, to identify hope in myths of transformation. Wings, which Zimmerman has written herself from culled pieces of old oral literature, wants us to wonder—and most of what it wants us to wonder about ain't too pretty.

The production begins as a married couple leaves their young daughter in the care of a baby-sitter. The man and wife prattle on in near nonsense about the perils of traffic and parking, then quickly depart, refusing to take into consideration their child's valid concerns that the hairy man in the wife-beater undershirt whom they've left in charge is also sporting a long, reptilian tail.

"I have a tale," he croaks, limping over to the girl with a large book in his arms.

"Yes, I know!" she shrieks, amusingly failing to notice the homonym.

The ogre opens the tome and begins, of course, with "Once upon a time. . . . "

What follows is a tangling of several particularly unstable tales, each of them broken up by the baby-sitter's repeated requests for his temporary ward to wed him. Zimmerman is after something about the impending burdens we've all felt about becoming and being an adult, and, boy, has she found supportive stories that make the Ovid myths seem starchy by comparison: Three pregnant queens flee their kings' evil nursemaid, later tearing out their own eyes and feeding on their newborns; a princess insists that her true love be buried alive with her when she dies (she's later revived, is bored by his devotion, and plots his violent demise); a girl is made to live in a horribly tormented silence for seven years until she can knit jackets of flowers to end a curse that has transformed her brothers into swans.

These tales and others are met by the director's ability to find the forbidding chill in imagistic elegance. That rarefied iciness, the picture-book perfection with which Zimmerman pursues human ugliness, may leave you cold, but I can't imagine anyone exiting the experience unimpressed by the disciplined expanse of her imagination. Scenic designer Dan Ostling has given her a multileveled, splendidly doomed-looking manse in which to play—it looks like some dungeon from your dreams, expertly painted, and frosted by T.J. Gerckens' haunting lights—and Zimmerman responds to it with choreographic stagecraft that captures both the strange beauty and nagging malice of the stories. A bereaved widower king develops a yen for his daughter to the ghostly strains of "Falling in Love Again"; the ritual of four girls playing immaculate rounds of hopscotch and patty-cake is used as a prelude to more perversely grown-up games; the unfaithful princess drowns in a sequence using only light, an empty picture frame, and a dripping bucket of water.

The show's main pull comes from the oozing sexual undertow of what we've come to believe are children's stories, but it isn't all bleak. Zimmerman, who can sometimes favor pliable bodies over acting technique, has her best ensemble yet, and the nine-member company of performers relishes the chance to run with her irreverence. Christopher Donahue has a grand time as the pathetically gnarled and snarling baby-sitter, and Mark Alhadeff got some of the biggest laughs on opening night as a shepherd forced to try to make an unhappy princess laugh under penalty of decapitation (opting for off-color stand-up comedy, he swears he won't tell any jokes about sex with animals because "that's private . . . and frankly, overrated").

Not all of Zimmerman's selected stories complement the arc of her production. The princess-who-won't-laugh tale seems to be around mostly for some leavening humor, and as mentioned, there is a decided randomness to the presentation. But the Bausch reference is handy: Critic Laura Jacobs once wrote that a Bausch performance "takes place in those three to four inches between nature and nurture." Zimmerman is exploring here those same tiny quarters, and a clever ending suggests that she, too, is creeped out by the uncertainty of where one psychic border ends and the other begins. STEVE WIECKING

My Boat to Bainbridge

Market Theatre; ends Fri., April 29

If there is such thing as a Northwest ethos, writer/performer Matt Smith embodies it. The habits and habitat of the Northwest—from gray to green, from Boeing to boating—are encoded in this man's DNA. Onstage, Smith oozes the woodsy, loose-jointed charm of a park ranger, torqued at times by the ironic naïveté of the neoliberal Seattle boomer whose civic-mindedness sometimes hilariously veers toward a neurotic narcissism. His face is wide open and anxiously friendly, and he employs an expressive arsenal of tics and shrugs and eager smiles that often mask a sardonic turn of thought—David Byrne in Birkenstocks.

It probably goes without saying that Smith's new one-man show, ably directed by Bret Fetzer, is no more about a ferry ride than My Dinner With Andre is about eating. In fact, as a narrative, My Boat to Bainbridge is wonderfully adrift, moving in a thousand directions at once. A comic spiritual journey (through . . . what? Dog walking? Fatherhood?), Smith's spiel is a manic accretion of sounds, phrases, ideas, and observation, anchored only by the wry and joyously self-deprecating perceptions of this "self-centered, baby, punk ass." Much like the comic routines of Curb Your Enthusiasm'sLarry David, Smith couches his experience in terms of personal movement through, and negotiation with, an absurd world. He's your Wallingford good neighbor, a bucolic bourgeoisie with an REI card, a home office, and 1.5 kids belted in the back of the Volvo wagon. Beneath such a front, you can sense a kind of manic bristling, the struggle of a man at odds with the endemic complacency and undeniable livability of the Northwest, as though all this recycling and proper parenting and green boosterism were somehow emasculating.

The monologue rides this tension of transformation, of loving the way of life that you suspect might just be turning you into a squirrelly doofus. And despite all this, it's impossible not to like him. His satiric confrontations—as a husband, a father, a new neighbor—lead to a kind of anti-epiphany, with Smith playing the self-deprecating fool. "I am a hero," he states with a sense of awe, as if successfully disposing of a dog's poop bag in a neighbor's garbage can constitutes a moment of profound existential success. It is his acute and refreshingly honest attention to the psychic travails of such everyday details that makes this boat ride so worthwhile. With generous humor and insight, he grabs those "urban oars of righteousness" and navigates the rough middle passage of adulthood. RICHARD MORIN

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