In an article last March, The Star’s Jose Amador referred to boom! theater company as being “not only committed to new works, but also [focused] on experimentation in their programming.” Consistent with this statement, the burgeoning South Lake Union company is nearing the end of an ambitious, two-part festival of new works, spanning from mid-February to this weekend.
The offerings of the New Works Festival, varying drastically in tone and form, are matched in a number of combinations throughout it, making for continuously-changing playbills. So that while Mountain of Dreams, for example, goes up one evening alongside Vitruvius and Fight, it’ll share a bill the next week with Over: exposed. As a result, performances compliment and/or clash with one another to varying degrees from night to night, and each evening is by design unique. See the performance schedule here.
I attended the festival Thursday, April 26th, so will be commenting on productions that were staged that evening:
The night began with Everest, written and directed by boom! company member, Zach Nystrom. A two-person play, Everest anthropomorphizes the mountain of its title as a conscious, proactively self-preserving, moralistic, and powerful woman (Ellen Steves). The thirty-minute play begins with the incarnated Everest sitting serenely and majestically atop a snowy peak, which is fashioned minimally, yet effectively out of a ladder and sheet.
In stark contrast to the quiet peace Everest exudes, a desperate mountaineer (Angus Maxwell) struggles haplessly to lug the body of a deceased friend down the mountain, to be buried. The dichotomous image of Everest in her meditative calm and the climber in the throes of his onus is one the production ponders for several minutes. The climber makes very slow progress across the stage, grunting and heaving. The mountain, the warden of his predicament, appears indifferent to it.
Finally, Everest descends from her own apex to speak with the seemingly-doomed adventurer. Initially unsure of his mental footing–I’m speaking with a mountain, have I gone mad?–the man acclimates to the discourse, and resigns himself to participate in it. Having gained the climber’s attention, Everest is unabashed in describing her conviction, that she must protect herself from the ravages of selfish and ambitious men who endeavor to conquer her. It’s for this reason, she explains, she’s decided to claim the life of the man’s fallen comrade, an affront for which the man is furious, but for which he has no recourse. Everest goes on to express an admiration for the goodness of her captive (an assessment of moral character), then to issues an ultimatum: He may either continue along as he has, dragging the body of his friend, and pay with his life, or he may leave the body, and have his own life spared.
What ensues is a debate on character and conditions, and eventually a sort-of-negotiation. On an nuts-and-bolts level this is a clear-cut laying-out of terms. On a more abstract level, the mountain representing the pinnacle of achievement, Everest seeks to discover how man’s need to strive can steel itself against the realities of an oppressive condition.
Everest is neither long-winded nor particularly complex. Once discourse between the two characters has begun, the subtleties of the situation are quick to come into focus, and the stakes are self-evident. The power dynamic being tremendously lopsided, the mountain in possession of every conceivable bargaining chip, the man has no room to make demands. He has only what the mountain benevolently grants him. So while this could stand to be a tiresome relationship, the playwright/director is smart to imbue the scenario with brevity. The result is a work that is simple, clear, and complete.
Not listed on the schedule as being among the evening’s productions, Vitruvius is described by boom! as, “part performance, part installation investigating the boundaries between the synthetic, the natural, and where human creation falls in the mix.” Written and performed by Angus Maxwell, the very-short one-man show, as abstract as its blurb might lead one to assume, will test some of the limits of my summative acumen.
The namesake of the play, ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, penned the architectural treatise De architectura (“On Architecture”), in which he maintained the conviction that architecture must essentially be an imitation of nature, going on to espouse a principle that beautiful architectural works will derive their proportions from those of the human form. These concepts would serve as inspiration for da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Vitruvius contemplates a man as he labors on the construction of a sculpture, referential to the cosmos, which dangles high overhead. The installation, comprised mostly of intricate wire patterns reminiscent of orbital paths of planets around stars, is delicately adorned with lighting elements of varying sizes, colors, and brightnesses. The man below, tinkering with an electronic gizmo to affect an undisclosed change in the sculpture above him, speaks clipped commands into a microphone, which initiate further changes from some unseen person or force.
The changes the man manages are not always consistent with his intentions or expectations, or our own. Light, humorous moments are born out of his missteps, and are driven home by Maxwell’s clever, deliberate misdirection, a design-reliant sleight of hand. The impression we’re left with is that our character is working to create something that satisfies Vitruvius’ three virtues: something solid, something useful, something beautiful. At times he fails, at times he succeeds, yet the distinction seems to be just this side of moot. We are witnessing an homage to the human pursuit to create beauty–a particular beauty, which finds its source in nature .
The Peculiar Voyage of Roderick Parr
The third and final offering of the evening, The Peculiar Voyage of Roderick Parr, is a fifty-minute play described as “a dreary children’s show about a little boy whose brother pushes him out to sea in a box…, [who] finds that the world is what we believe it to be when we allow ourselves to drift away.”
Roderick, a very young child, has suffered the recent loss of his mother. His desperation to be reunited with her, coupled with his brother’s urgings, compels the young hero to set sail in a “boat” jerry-rigged from a brilliantine box. Adrift in a vast ocean, he undergoes an Odyssean series of encounters with speaking animals, mythic monsters and illusions, and insidious voices of doom and temptation. Through his adventure he begins to discover the depth of his agency, and to see how he can command the reigns of an empowered life, resisting a would-be resignation to victimhood or failure.
The allegory is tidy and straight-forward, along the way introducing us to several fanciful personalities, adhering to a rather conventional story arc, eventually arriving at a whimsical, earned closed ending. As a children’s play it succeeds in igniting the imagination, but resonates in rooting itself in definite rules of cause and effect, upholding the merits of being disciplined, self-possessed, and positive.
Speaking of “peculiar,” the staging of this piece is quite unusual. Presumably informed by the limitations of the boom! stage (which doesn’t feature a convenient backstage, for fluid entrances or exits), Roderick Parr leaves all of its several actors onstage at all times, as if it were a staged reading. There’s even a Narrator (playwright Tracy Cahill), who reads expository details from a script. In the context of this particular production the choice to stage the play in this fashion is not terribly distracting, but it rings of remedial pseudo-necessity.
Comprised largely of Cornish grads, boom! is among the more exciting up-and-coming theater companies in Seattle. What they may lack in certain resources–a condition they do not allow to become an excuse to compromise vision–they make up for in energy, palpable passion, and most importantly, the willingness and fortitude to take risks. I’m always delighted to be assigned to see shows there, and it’d do a lot for my optimistic spirit to see the company getting the turnouts and support they deserve.
Last show Friday, May 04 at 8:00 p.m; Closing Cinco do Mayo Party Saturday, May 05 at 8:00 p.m. // boom! theater company, 429 Fairview Avenue North // $10 for first show, $8 every subsequent show