A Day in Dig Nation
Re-bar; ends Sun., Nov. 20.
Michael McQuilken is ridiculously talented. As a musician, he moves easily among a variety of genres—rock, rap, country, and electronica—and is equally at home on a piano, guitar, or trap kit. As an actor, he shows equal facility with pantomime, drama, and straight-up comedy; his physical control, whether dancing or miming, is complete. McQuilken dreams up his own shows, creates his own sets, and writes his own music. He's good-looking. Funny. Smart. And just when you think you've seen it all, the guy struts out an old-school tap dance sequence.
If McQuilken's first solo show, A Day in Dig Nation, were simply a random gathering of these gifts—a lookee-me showcase—that would be more than enough. However, the show, directed by Rhonda Soikowski and co-written by Tommy Smith, holds together as a narrative, too, complete with a contemporary moral. It all ties up in a neat, thoughtful package that is satisfying without being coy or cloying. The show is divided into three linked acts. It opens in a post-apocalypse bunker, with a Hal-like computer calibrating the sole survivor's day down to the second: exercise, breakfast, atmospheric readings, journal entry. The play's middle and by far most substantial portion depicts the disintegration of the fictional multigenre band Steelhead, Hunter, Malloy, with McQuilken alternating between the roles of platitudinous country singer, righteously angry hip-hopper and pissed-off alcoholic crooner. It is only here that things drag a bit, as McQuilken lingers on the narcissistic dramas of celebrity. Yet, despite some meandering moments, McQuilken's musical expertise is on full display, as he creates walls of sound through an innovate use of digital loops. His songs, of course, are quite good. These seemingly disparate elements are brought together in the third act. Using prerecorded video images and multiple soundtracks, McQuilken creates a virtual world of frightening banality. His portrayal of the mind-numbing routine of a single workday, seen through the mute movement of a solitary sleepy soul, is hilarious, terrifying, and totally riveting. The ending is a surprise, and displays a subtly disorienting wisdom about the nature of redemption and new beginnings. In a very real sense, Dig Nation is the future of theater. Just as it's become possible for folks to single-handedly record music and edit film at home using computers, McQuilken takes charge of multiple technologies to create a single, integrated stage work. In the wrong hands, this might prove tedious or
indulgent or just plain boring. McQuilken, though, uses the technology as an extension and enhancement of his talent; what's more, he uses technology to comment on itself. Don't miss this show. RICHARD MORIN
Romeo and Juliet
Seattle Shakespeare Company at Center House Theatre; ends Sun., Nov. 20.
Seattle Shakespeare Company's current production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by John Langs, transports its audience to the sparely furnished city of Verona where chain-link fences have replaced orchard hedges and the graffiti of the Montague and Capulet clans mark the city walls. Romeo runs with a tough gang that sports a grunge look, while the Capulet crowd, in its snazzy suits, could be perceived as more "mod." Langs differentiates the two families by their offsprings' musical tastes—a choice that immediately brings the young ages of the star-crossed lovers to the fore. And what better place to stage the first moments of passion than with Romeo onstage as a contemporary troubadour where he declares love through indie rock, and in return receives the groupielike devotion of his Juliet?
There is a genuine spark between Juliet (Dana Powers Acheson) and Romeo (Lathrop Walker), although at times this power resides in moments of silence, not dialogue (for example when the lovers are secretly and silently wed). Erica Bradshaw performs fantastically as a sassy but devoted nurse to Juliet. Her delivery of Shakespearean verse, faithful though it may be, is replete with modern intonation that breathes new life into the Bard's old words. Due to its lightning-fast pace, the play does not necessarily allow for monklike reflection upon the significance of each and every uttered phrase, but it more than makes up for it with a production that is powerfully charged with raging hormones and the sweet sorrow of parting with youth. SUZANNE BEAL
Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames
Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., Dec. 10.
In Denis Johnson's short-story collection Jesus' Son, the otherwise unnamed narrator—a man scraped hollow by addiction–is referred to only as "Fuckhead." That epithet reveals scads about Johnson's literary concerns. Like Dostoyevski or Hubert Selby before him, he is congenitally drawn to society's down and out—those natural-born screw-ups inhabiting the twilit edges of the American Dream, scrounging for discarded scraps of love and dignity. Driven by deep and aching loneliness, his characters wander an apocalyptic landscape populated by modern-day confidence men, snake-oil charmers, and pinkie-ringed televangelists, and their search for meaning is as untenable as their own excessive desires. Johnson's latest effort, a trilogy of plays about the wildly dysfunctional Cassandra family (of Ukiah, Calif.), significantly ups the screw-up quotient. The Cassandras are a fictional clan of misfits for whom family ties are one big Gordian knot; if they are close-knit, it's only because nobody else will get near them. They are in every aspect the inverted reflection of Salinger's Glass family: manic and crudely articulate, riven by envy and grudges, and with medicine cabinets as packed with pharmaceuticals as their closets are clinking with skeletons. The first installment of the Cassandra cycle, Hellhound on My Trail—which premiered in March at Theater Schmeater under the elegant direction of Rob West—introduced the Cassandra lineup through a triptych of rock-bottom scenarios, each scene playing out as a crisis of identity and meaning. The show came off as a sort of postmodern morality play, with a disjointed narrative draped loosely across the architectural props of pulp fiction. In Hellhound, genre elements adopted from crime novels—a bag of unclaimed heroin, a shadowy conspiracy, and the ubiquitous pistol—collided with surrealist encounters right out of Beckett. The result was loopy and kaleidoscopic, a nightmare vision of
America that overcame baggy plotting through the sheer weird energy of its execution. It was a fun and disarming spectacle, bolstered by excellent performances and the fierce dynamo of Johnson's talent.
The second installment, Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames, seems as unconcerned with continuity and logic as the first. Nicely directed once again by Rob West, the play drops the audience face first into Cassandra-land, where chaos is king and psychic pain is a badge of honor. This time around, Cass (again well-played by Roy Stanton) has returned to his parents' home in what appears to be a gesture of surrender, if not despair; he's come to sober up. (Sarah Weinstein's single set, by the way, is a wonderful reproduction of California middle-class camp, a cluttered living room in which every element orbits the giant television.) Cass's decision to return to the roost proves self-sabotaging in the extreme. First, there's Grandma (the always wonderful Betty Campbell), a frittering nutcase obsessed with microwaveable popcorn and "the vileness of California." Dad (Michael Perrone) is a burnt-out case, a half-baked Lear given to narcoleptic lulls and ponderous philosophizing about the sadness and beauty of the universe. Helping matters least is Cass's brother Bro, played with scruffy, devilish glee by Erik Hill (he was federal agent Jack Toast in Hellhound). Bro is a walking disaster, a reconstructed piece of whip-smart white trash, who wields his debauched honesty like a scalpel.
"We're fucked up and I don't mind it," he says proudly. "I enjoy it." It is Bro who reveals the dark, guilty secret smoldering in the Cassandras' past, the catalyst of their dissolution: the long ago, grisly death of baby sister Amy. Not only does he reopen this tragic wound—he seems to relish rubbing his family's faces in it. Such is life in Ukiah. And somewhere in there, the television begins to talk back. It would be natural to assume that all this sadomasochistic mutilation and emotional skullduggery is a one-way ticket to bummerville. Yet, Shoppers is an oddly buoyant and even upbeat piece of work. Credit for this rests squarely on the shoulders of director West and crew, who seem to understand the essentially comic thrust of Johnson's writing. As with such latter-day satirists as Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders, Johnson depicts a wrecked humanity confronting the empty promises of technology, mass media, and a consumer society run amok. West recognizes the intrinsic hope implied in Johnson's moral outrage, and he brings to Shoppers a sense of levity and humor that prevents this dark material from lapsing into nihilism. RICHARD MORIN