Phantoms at Play

Black awakening at the Rep and orphan argot from Macha.

An interrogation disguised as a ghost story, equal parts Dostoyevsky and Richard Wright, Blue Door's action takes place over the course of a single dark night of the soul for middle-aged mathematician Lewis (the tall andbaritone-voiced Reg E. Cathey). Left alone after his wife walks out with the word "divorce" on her lips, Lewis confronts a series of very talkative ghosts, the specters of ancestors who've returned to grill what one of them calls a "white devil in black clothing." Needless to say, it's going to be a long night.

What follows is a play of psychological power and haunting beauty that plumbs difficult issues of racial identity and assimilation with a sense of confidence and sophistication uncommon in a relatively young playwright (Tanya Barfield wrote the play at age 33). Directed by Leigh Silverman, who also oversaw the play in New York, Blue Door is elevated to something just shy of divine by the combined performances of Cathey and Hubert Point-Du Jour–anabsolute dynamo of an actor who plays all three of the ancestral ghosts come to take Lewis to task. These two fine actors invest their characters with a depth of feeling that is at once ponderous and playful. They perfectly embody the play's intellectual concerns, making it both timely and universal.

The play of dichotomies is evident in the design of the stage itself–a sparse expanse of wood planking. In one corner sits Lewis' polished mahogany desk, the archetypal workspace of the successful, perhaps slightly pampered and precious academic. At the far, far opposite corner sits the crudest ofelementary-school desks, a symbol of impoverished utilitarianism, sort of defiant and sort of sad. What slowly comes to light is that Lewis, an apparently successful mathematician who has recently published a book (Mathematical Structures & the Repudiation of Time), is being eaten alive by something close to guilt–a sense that his entrance into mainstream respectability is a ruse as well as a diminishment of his true self. Confronting one of his black students, he mistakenly hears the word "Heidegger" as "house nigger." Such is his self-doubt. "I have to get my house in order," Lewis laments. "I don't know who I am." Hope for redemption is offered in the legend of the blue door: Lewis must "paint his door blue" to keep the good spirits in and the bad spirits out. Only in this folk wisdom can he discover the means of reconciling the contradictions that divide his troubled soul.

The play moves with the speed and logic of a dream, and Point-Du Jour and Cathey are all in, granting a deep and abiding sense of humanity to Barfield's sometimes heady script. Blue Door deserves a wide audience. It's the perfect play for Seattle audiences, who should leave the theater feelingexhilarated–not for having their pieties about tolerance catered to, but for being shown something true and real about life.

There is the kernel of a good play hiding somewhere inside Macha Monkey's production of We Are Not These Hands by Sheila Callaghan. There's an abundance of interesting ideas and innovative twists, not least of which is the oddly Freudian, grammatically skewed argot spoken by Belly (Tinka Jonakova) and Moth (Amy Conant), a pair of friends living like orphans on the street after their school is "blowed up." These ragamuffins, bound together by raw need as well as a desire to escape their straitened circumstances, gather every day outside an Internet cafe–the enigmatic "inside"–where they stare through the window and tell stories to each other about what they see.

What they see is a man they name "Leather" (Mark Fullerton), an autodidact and "freelance scholar" working–or perhaps just spinning his wheels–over a spiraling treatise on postmodern economics and the global economy. Though the two teenagers make fun of this nervous, chatty, mother-obsessed sad sack, they also see him as their ticket out; it is through him that they may be able to escape "across the river" and into the promised land. At the heart of Hands is the affair–at first creepy, but in the end rather touching–that develops between Moth and Leather (he ends up putting his "wonk" in her "tutti"), and how this in turn affects the relationship between Moth and Belly.

It is a testament to the talent of the cast that this strange and seemingly exploitative triangulation of lost souls is made compelling. Conant is especially good as Moth, a naïf whose emotional life is expressed almost entirely through her sad, imploring eyes. The actors do the best with what they're given, forging what connection they can through mouthfuls of postmodern psychobabble and invented language. The story that does find its way through the tangle of ideas and lingo is intriguing, but it left me wanting more.

The play is divided into some 12 chapters–each with titles like "The lies behind your eyes" and "It is night that makes us whole" and, my personal favorite, "You take you have you want." The titles do refer, obliquely, to theaction at hand, but mostly they just sound great, like so much of Callaghan's writing. The problem is that good, even daring ideas,coupled with a revolutionary use of language, don't necessarily drive a narrative; they can actually get in the way. The whole narrativeis too baggy to build momentum–when momentum is what it desperately needs.

Nonetheless, there are moments of real power, as well as passages of dialogue as stunning as they are hilarious. (Belly: "I peed in the mouth of a capitalist." Moth: "Did he swallow?" Belly: "They always swallow.") Callaghan is a very talented writer, full of anger as well as an obvious desire to encompass the fractured realities of a media-saturated, postindustrial world economy and its ramifications for those most ignored and forgotten by it. She's got the chops to do it, too. It just doesn't happen here.

Blue Door Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 443-2222, $10–$40. Ends March 4.

We Are Not These Hands, Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., 860-2970, ext. 1, $12–$15. Ends March 3.

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