Seattle’s Shame: More Canadians Have Seen Le Frenchword’s Fancy Mud Than Seattleites

[Jim Hamerlinck] Le Frenchword stare into the void in FANCY MUD, their existential exploration of black holes, cell phones, bunnies and California.
Yes, it’s a matter of fact: More Canadians have seen Fancy Mud, Le Frenchword’s epic existential work of profound idiocy, than Seattle citizens. What makes this fact even more damning is that the Seattle trio have performed their debut production exponentially more times, and in more venues around town (Capitol Hill, Cascade/South Lake Union, Belltown), during the last couple of years than during their month-long tour of the Canadian Fringe. The troupe are remounting their successful production over the next couple of weekends at the West of Lenin, in Fremont.

Not for lack of trying, or lack of critical attention: Their show has received a ton of positive press, including the Star’s own John Allis, who wrote the following while at our predecessor: “I haven’t seen anything this deeply, unapologetically off-the-wall in this city in a while. Even more, Fancy Mud accomplishes something commendable in remaining well-thought-out. If you’re game to think on some puzzling moments of beauty and weirdness, think about Fancy Mud.”

The show itself is difficult to encapsulate…It starts with an aborted dissertation on what happens inside black holes that very quickly picks up digressions into cuteness molecules, California, and the ephemeral nature of cell phones. Then a vengeful god whose image could only be described as a bunny enters the scene and things scatter from there. But, in a funny way. [Full disclosure: Your correspondent served as Le Frenchword’s stage manager, board operator and unwilling shill during the group’s run at Erickson Theater earlier in the year.-ed.]

The Star recently met with Carter Rodriguez, founding member of Le Frenchword, late one evening at St. John’s, a bar on Capitol Hill. The intent was to discuss the show thoroughly, but given the lateness of the hour, and the lubricated state of the participants, things could only degenerate after a while. See for yourself.

Seattle Star: Has the show gotten deeper the more you perform it?

Carter Rodriguez: Yes, it thrives on discovery and astonishment.

SStar: Any particular portion seem to stand out for this?

CR: It happens in small moments all throughout the show. We’ve performed it so many times, that we now have the good fortune of being able to tweeze up the tiniest details. I still have notes after every show, for myself and the others.

SStar: So the process hasn’t stopped?

CR: A little adjustment here, or a timing thing there, or a place where the particular world we are in needs to be suspended. A moment that needs one more second of being established or we ask “how can I make this stupider?”

There is one joke in the play that I have only recently figured out how to deliver in such a way that it’s funny to the audience and not just me. Occasionally, something that used to consistently get a particular response will lose its luster, and we have to find out what used to make it work and rediscover it.

SStar: You guys have been doing this show for over a couple of years now; what’s next, will you continue honing the material, or is something new on the horizon?

CR: This show is done, and after all of the workshopping, there are no other changes to make other than fine detail acting adjustments between shows.

We keep doing it because hardly anyone has seen it yet. The plan is to take it to other cities, and probably back to the Canadian Fringe with a different marketing campaign. This type of show needs smart marketing, and though I think our branding is strong, I think that I need to alter some things in the poster design and highlight some other things in the show that will draw people in. An abstract show needs a literal campaign.

SStar: How do you mean?

CR: We kept having people bring their kids to the show in Canada, which is weird. I don’t think they were reading the program notes; I think they saw our colorful outfits and thought it was a show for kids.

SStar: Probably the bunny thing in the description threw them off?

CR: It was fun for me to watch the audience during the simulated disemboweling that takes place…people were hiding their children’s eyes, literally.

[Jim Hamerlinck] One of several indignities visited upon Ben Burris, left, in FANCY MUD.

SStar: So, if this show is done, is there anything else in the plans?

CR: There are numerous ideas in the cauldron for the next show; we are also going to take the Frenchword Warehouse, our cabaret music side project, to the next level.

SStar: More original songs, or more Rush covers?

CR: A combination of originals and covers. We have a 35 min set right now, we want a polished hour. I’ve been working on a quasi-Spanish version of Tom Sawyer. If you haven’t seen the Frenchword Warehouse yet, it’s more improv-based and loose. There are vaudeville-type bits in it. We need to be tighter, though. If the music is tight, then the comedy stuff plays better.

SStar: The lesson of Weird Al and Tenacious D.

CR: Yes. Zappa, Very Special Forces.

SStar: Spike Jones.

CR: “Yes” in agreement, not Yes the band.

SStar: Though Canadians think Yes is hilarious.

CR: For Le Frenchword’s new show, we’ll be starting over with a blank slate in the rehearsal room and just playing and going crazy and seeing what we find. It’s been a long time since we’ve done that.

SStar: At least the creative process will be smoother because you’ve spent all this time working with each other.

CR: Yes, there are lessons that don’t need to be rediscovered. Though, Ben [Burris] will be new to the generation process with us; he will bring a new dimension. He was mainly just a performer in this show.

SStar: Most of Fancy Mud was written before he jumped on board, right?

CR: Sort of. We left open spots for him to write in his bits of dialogue

SStar: So you, Ben and Sachie [Mikawa] is Le Frenchword’s set group now? Will George Lewis still have a hand in it?

CR: Depends on his availability. He was an important collaborator on Fancy Mud and he helped us polish the show quite nicely for us. He lives in Buenos Aires now, and is spending less and less time in Seattle. I think his mark is on this show, though.

We left open spots for Ben to write dialogue in places where John Leith, before he too left Seattle, had previously said stuff. Mud also has John’s fingerprints on it, he was an original collaborator and his writing is still in the show.

SStar: What was his, for example?

CR: The “I Can See Clearly Now” apocalypse speech that Ben does is his, and he wrote the original text for “The 3 Legged Cow of Creation.” The concept for how the the cow myth is performed was my idea – with the narrator controlling the world that emerges. I fell in love with that story the first time I read it.

SStar: That’s one of the pieces that’s remained the same over the iterations
I mean, that hasn’t changed much, has it?

CR: Yeah, not really. After we started exploring the black hole theme, we realized that we needed numerous perspectives on the black hole. We had to have the opening lecture (which I wrote); we had the inside the black hole perspective, and then John wrote this great creation myth to bookend it.

In a way, the show is really about things that suck you in — black holes being the largest physical manifestation, there are cell phones and California and cuteness and cults. And vaginas. And bunnies.

SStar: I think you just gave away the key to understanding this piece. This makes that opening speech make more thematic sense.

CR: Yes, we have to start in the real world.

SStar: For at least thirty seconds.

CR: At least.

SStar: …shit.

CR: It makes sense, no?

[Jim Hamerlinck] Le Frenchword, larger than life.

SStar: After running and seeing the show so many times, the trajectory was making some kind of sense, I could follow it. Now I understand the construction of it.

CR: The audience may or may not get it, but we have to know what we’re doing at all times. There are a handful of people who totally get it the first time. These are few, though. Also, I don’t think people have to get something in order to enjoy or appreciate it. The question is more important than the answer.

I also think that it’s nice for peope to see something that has them thinking on the ride home from the theater. It’s more about moving through worlds in an experiential state than something more…linear.

SStar: Which is then capped by “The 3 Legged Cow of Creation”–a different take on what’s gone on before.

CR: Yes, ancient oral myth tradition…with a dying cow’s butthole as a punchline. Meaning! More deep, meaningful meaning. Fancy Mud is an evolution metaphor. We are all ridiculous shit. (Long pause.)

SStar: So, would you say that more Canadians have seen the show now than Seattleites?

CR: More Canadians have seen us than Americans, and it’s not because we’re French. We ain’t French. Canadians aren’t French either, but they’re closer to being French than we are. You can tell, because they called us ‘avant garde’…which are some French words.

I think the non-French Canadians may have been trying to increase their cultural stock, so that they could have conversations with people from Montreal, should the opportunity present itself. Turns out the joke is on them, because Quebecians speak in actual French words. The Canadians that saw us weren’t even from the French part of Canadia…they were from the, like, Kansas part of Canadia or the Arizona part of Canadia. Lotsa penis trucks fulla dudes yelling barely audible racist and sexist remarks.

SStar: Okay, so–

CR: I say “barely audible,” but really, you couldn’t understand a fucking word they said. It seemed to be a purely Edmontonian phenomenon. If a person passed you in a vehicle that was travelling faster than you were walking, they would bark out some bizarre stream of syllables. Ben was walking back to our temporary home one day, and a kid on a bike rode past him and said “yeowwrluggh.”

SStar: All right, but racist?

CR: Sachie tends to dress in miniskirts and heels a lot, so there was a lot of confusion about her purpose for walking down certain streets. Usually, I was with her wearing a true fedora with a real brim–not one of these hip KFed-dora Green Arrow hats). I think they thought we were open for business. One evening, a twenty-something in black skater gear and booty shorts–I’m not kidding, booty shorts–said to me: “With a hat like that you’ve gotta have some cocaine.”

I got some good hats. The fedoras all have Le Frenchword buttons on the band, which kind of counts, because people always say “pardon my French” when they cuss.

SStar: What?

CR: I bought a camo trucker ballcap in the Winnipeg Goodwill that says “R. G.’s Sporting Goods – Red Lake, Ontario Canada” on it. I cuss a little more when I wear it because of its rugged rural stylings. Canadians don’t cuss too much, unless hockey is on the TV at the sports bar.

There is the story of the actor who was in a play, and every night he went out and asked for a pickle, and every night the audience laughed. One night, he went out and said the line, but no one laughed. Back stage, he saw the director and he said, “Shit, they didn’t laugh at the line tonight.” The director said, “That’s because you asked for a laugh, you’re supposed to ask for a pickle.”

A parable from the comedy bible: We have to keep asking for pickles or we’ re fucked.

SStar: Right… So, during the “Cow of Creation,” Sachie is supposed to be using a laser knife on Ben–

CR: It seems like she was using a dull butter knife in Canadia. She has to create the center of the galaxy, not cut out a sphincter.

SStar: How was your fake sponsor, Scrapey the Abortion Hedgehog, received up North? That one woman on TV seemed befuddled by it. [Go to 03:20 mark.-Ed.]

CR: They reacted about the same, except for one night, when the audience just sat in stunned silence.

SStar: Where was this?

CR: Edmonton.

SStar: Nobody left, though?

CR: We had a couple of walkouts up in Canada. I think it was mostly oldsters that had bladder issues. There were some haters though. Did you see the Winnipeg Free Press review?

SStar: Yeah.

CR: Strange that it didn’t bother me at all. Especially after I had read her other reviews and a non-review article that she wrote. We had some one flaming us on our FB page about how much we suck.

SStar: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

CR: I’d like to hit a high F like Minnie Ripperton.

SStar: Good luck with that.

CR: It never gets old when it comes to humiliation and Ben.

SStar: Right.

CR: You have to remember that he brings it on himself by being Ben.

SStar: …it’s that face, isn’t it?

[Jim Hamerlinck] A typical end result for Ben Burris after FANCY MUD.

CR: It’s just so slap-able. He was born with a “kick me” sign on his back.

SStar: Has he ever actually heard the song “I Can See Clearly Now?”

CR: I think so, but I think he hears it with his “Ben ears,” which have some sort of filter that renders everything digestible to his isolated world that only he can live in. Believe me, you don’t want to go there.

SStar: Is that where he goes when he’s giving the thousand yard stare?

CR: Yes, exactly. It’s actually an inward stare, he’s looking at the vacuum of his internal blind spot. It’s like Sachie’s cuckoo brain loop world except it doesn’t have a loop. It just goes cuckoo in one direction, then it either fizzles into a vast plane of nothingness with a dumb smile on his face or it freaks him the fuck out at the realization of his own pathetic-ness. Whereas Sachie is an intelligent person who is also dumb, Ben is a dumb person who is also dumb.

SStar: …where did you find Sachie? I remember when she first showed up with the Japanese Birthday Clown, and…

CR: The thing with Sachie has something to do with a culture of repetition — Japanese — and a lack of available medication. In Sachie’s brain, it’s like a lateral hamster wheel or a not-so-merry-go-round that has a series of signposts and landmark images that represent all of her successes and failures. The scenery is ever changing, depending on the latest tragedy or victory or how close she is to a mirror.

SStar: Then there’s you, the Moe in this existential Three Stooges act. How or why do you put up with it?

CR: It’s like being a lion tamer, except you have a mouse on crystal meth and a dog that has brain damage from being hit by a car: The whip and the chair are useless. At that point, you direct the circus of crazy into the realm of high concept and then get out of the way. Or stand in the eye of the storm and try not to get any fluid on your sweater.

I’m just a feather for every wind that blows, just trying to hitch my wagon to a star…and other cliches.

SStar: It’s always darkest below the belt.

CR: A hand in the bush is worth two on the bird.

SStar: A stitch in time takes some doing.

CR: And remember: whenever you point a finger at me, you’re pointing three fingers at the city of Tacoma, and a thumb at Jesus’ butthole.

Fridays and Saturdays, at 8:00p.m.; through September 15 // West of Lenin, 203 North 36th Street // $12, tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets

[Jim Hamerlinck] Sachie Mikawa in an intimate embrace with the Bunny.
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