All posts by StefanDW

Intiman’s Angels: Required Viewing Without Rapture

Prior Walter (Adam Stanley) has a divine encounter in Intiman's Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Prior Walter (Adam Stanley) has a divine encounter in Intiman’s Angels In America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches

If you’ve never seen Angels in America you need to see Intiman’s current production (at Cornish Playhouse through September 21st). If you’ve only seen the HBO film version, you need to see this production. If you’ve seen the show before you can sit this one out but you likely won’t because you’ll know that Angels in America is one of the great plays of the 20th Century. It has taken its place alongside Death of a Salesman, August: Osage County, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (I’d also make an argument for adding The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks to this list, but I might be in a minority). These are plays that define our national identity in terms that gain breadth from their specificity.

And yes, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the play is long, but also like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf it is vital and necessary that you stay for the whole performance. Plan on arriving late to work the next day if need be. The whole work is more than 7 hours of theatre. Part 1: Millennium Approaches is 3.5 hours long, including intermissions—yes, plural intermissions (Part 2: Perestroika opens September 3rd and runs in rep).

The play has a lot to say and it says it efficiently. Plot and event churn away. Famously there are even scenes that play simultaneously (an effect that isn’t entirely successful in this production). That’s how efficient it is, and yet it still takes 3.5 hours. Even if this production leaves room for improvement it’s worth it.

The play speaks of the American condition with joy, love, comedy, anxiety, and ambition all that makes America what it is. When the play debuted in the early 1990s it seemed remarkable that it did this through a story full of homosexuals and Mormons. Lately homosexuals and Mormons seem to dominate the American cultural landscape. Was playwright Tony Kushner prescient? Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Who’s to say—but does the play age well? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes (thus far).

What once was topical and current is now historical. Though we still fight mysterious and seemingly unstoppable viruses that rise out of Africa and wreak death and destruction in the face of fear and ignorance, the palpable fear of the AIDS epidemic now feels like the fear of the red scare Kushner references in the person of Ethel Rosenberg. It’s historical but present, if only because we never really outgrow our history. Director Andrew Russell leads his cast through the heavy meal of Kushner’s text with keen understanding and useful interpretive shades.

Intiman’s production is good but not the transcendent show it should be. The acting is mostly solid, with a cast that hails from the usual drama club of Seattle suspects. Charles Leggett delivers possibly his finest performance to date, disappearing into his role as the venal lawyer and Republican operative, Roy Cohn. Quinn Franzen is also excellent and nearly unrecognizable in the central role of Louis. Franzen’s accent fades over the course of some scenes but he lives fully inside this tightly wound bundle of intellect and anxiety. In fact he shares the one scene this production really nails. The other half of that scene is the ever-reliable Intiman stalwart, Timothy McCuen Piggee, who doubles as both—well, this is where it gets complicated.

Angels has a level of complexity that suggests something between a fugue and a 19th century melodrama. Be warned that Part 1 ends in a tangle of split ends and splicing comes late in the game of Part 2.

At the center we find a pair of couples. The most central of these are long-time boyfriends: the Jewish intellectual, Louis (Franzen), and the WASP-y Prior (Adam Standley). From the Mormon side we have the Valium-popping housewife, Harper (Alex Highsmith) and her rising star Republican (natch) lawyer husband, Joe (Ty Boice). For inciting incidents we have two diagnoses of AIDS: one for Prior and the other for the real historical figure, Roy Cohn (Leggett). Roy is Joe’s mentor and champion. Joe is Louis’s coworker.

Piggee plays Prior’s ex-boyfriend, Belize, but he also doubles as Harper’s hallucination, Mr. Lies. Roy has his own hallucination in the person of Ethel Rosenberg (Anne Allgood). There is a score of character, all told, and much doubling. Also there is an angel (Marya Sea Kaminski).

There is some great work here. In addition to the fine acting Jennifer Zeyl’s set tweaks the play’s traditional tabula rasa, evoking Greek tragedy, and both civic and eternal judgment with heavy steps, columns, and plinths. She jettison’s New York City specificity favoring thematic unity. Mark Mitchell’s costumes are perfectly researched for character, circumstance and tradition from Harper’s Mormon underwear to the big suits that hang off Roy’s shrinking frame and Ethel’s perfectly manicured ensemble.

Harper (Highsmith), Prior (Standley), Joe (Boice), and Louis (Franzen)
Harper (Highsmith), Prior (Standley), Joe (Boice), and Louis (Franzen)

Unfortunately the biggest moment fails. The lead-up to the angel’s entrance is powerful. Matt Starritt’s sound design sneaks up on us and then promises great things to come. Robert Aguilar’s lights open the door to astonishment. What we get is a Christmas tree topper. One can see the argument for the choice but it is neither sufficiently ironic nor adequately awe inspiring to produce anything more than disappointment, despite Kaminski’s best efforts.

It should be noted that Kaminski brings a big spark to every other scene she touches, whether playing a South Bronx derelict, a sympathetic nurse, or the friend and realtor of Joe’s mother back in Salt Lake. Few others show such consistency through their many roles. Anne Allgood shines as Ethel but drags in most of her other roles. Highsmith’s Martin Heller requires some endurance and graciousness from the audience, and even Piggee’s Mr. Lies lacks the verve of a compelling fantasy. Leggett is as good playing Prior’s Restoration era ancestor as he is in his primary role, and though Ty Boice struggles with his accent his medieval ancestor of Prior has great charisma.

For all this production’s achievements it shares the perennial Seattle theatre problem of a dragging pace. One can hear the gaps between lines that leave the dialogue feeling staccato and plodding until we get to the three-quarter mark of this first half of the play. In this scene Belize meets with Louis, who is wracked with guilt at leaving Prior when he can’t cope with the illness anymore. Louis covers his guilt, fear, and self-loathing by spewing intellectual folderol that quickly careers into blatant racism that finally drives Belize away. Franzen nails the New York pace while Piggee stays in the scene, engaged, listening, and responding through Belize’s repulsion and disconnection. This is an intensely emotionally driven scene that unearths the love and fear these men feel for Prior. Their different responses delineate the spectrum of humanity, our frailty, self-interest, compassion, and heroism. Here the cast, director and playwright find the same groove and the show fully lives up to its reputation.

Existential Dread Wants to be Funny

Get ready, Seattle, here comes Beckettfest! Yes, More than a dozen performance producing organizations throughout Seattle will be performing works of Sam Beckett including Waiting for Godot and that one with people in the trash cans. It’s depressing. Nothing happens. It’s inscrutable. It’s slapstick!

Yes, Beckett is funny. If you’ve seen Beckett’s work you know—or at least suspect—that he draws as much from the music hall as the mortuary. Gags abound, but in a rarefied air that makes them as liable to produce tears—or at least existential dread—as laughter. Pulling off such duality takes a light touch.

Beckett-Poster-as-JPEGMuch of Life = Play (through August 24th at West of Lenin) has the touch of a toddler petting a cat: halting, forceful, and backwards. Yet it is not without pleasure in acting, in technical design, and in direction—just rarely all at once.

We begin with Act Without Words, easily the most accessible of the evening’s pieces, in which Ray Tagavilla puts aside his usual tough-guy act for full immersion in the life of the silent-movie pratfall masters Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. His goal is simple survival. Both his obstacles and resources are surreal. His interactions are a stock series of failures.

This is all perfectly Beckettian and in good fun but the pathos is missing and we fail to care about our hero or share his struggle. Tagavilla gives it his all but never admits any vulnerability. Furthermore the ragtime soundtrack distances the action. By reinforcing the association with Chaplin et al., the music sets expectations that the actions fulfill with little surprise.

In Rockaby Susanna Burney rocks a rocking chair as the light shifts over the course of a day and the waning years of her life. AJ Epstein gets the credit, in this piece, for his lighting deisgn. Rockaby reduces the situation to an extreme simplicity evoking both the universal and the quotidian. Burney’s recorded voice lulls us in its insistent recital of text that fills in all the details of the moment in an interior stream-of-consciousness. The words are confused, repetitive, and desultory. The pieces leaves us feeling that we’ve spent a day with an aging person whose mind is prone to drift.

The uniformity and lack of action places our focus on such fine points as the pace of Burney’s rocking, which speeds and slows, rising to a final rush before suddenly ending. That rocking moves her face through the light. As the Georgian window and Venetian blind gobos speed over her features they create a strobe effect in which we catch her alternately lit from behind and below making it impossible to definitively read her emotions. All we trust is her determined demand and only spoken word: more. Even in nursing home monotony she demands “More”. In this we get to the fear and sadness beneath Beckett’s laughter.

A chuckle or two is easier to come by in the light, yet pensive, Come and Go–the highlight of the evening–in which three women share a bench. They are still and silent with similar but distinctly different shades to their waiting. Kate Kraay disapproves. Kate Sumpter begrudges. Rachel Delmar disdains. They present gossip and the bonds and belligerence that define socially active lives in insular communities. We laugh from familiarity. Though their actions are broad and representative the subtlety of the variations gives life to their characters and Beckett even delivers a semblance of hope in the end. In addition to the fine acting Sarah Mosher’s costumes take notice along with Epstein’s lights and sound.

The Life = Play staging of La Derniére Bande (performed and directed by Burke Walker) deviates from Beckett’s writing in small but significant ways (risky in such precise writing) by reviving the original script of what we know as Krapp’s Last Tape. It is performed in French with English supertitles. In fact it is most appropriate to use the promoted title: La Derniére Bande (Krapp’s Last Tape en Français with supertitles). After all, the supertitles are so disruptive that they deserve top billing.

Beckett’s world is subtle. The supertitles mean we are constantly looking away from the physical acting to concentrate on the text and therefore miss Walker’s responses to the text, which, as in Rockaby, is mostly recorded. It is Krapp’s interior world but a distanced one from the past.

Even in the broadly physical comedy of the piece Walker seems to work to subvert the comedy of Krapp’s Last Tape. Relating Krapp’s name, his intestinal difficulties, and their relationship to Krapp’s guilty pleasure of banana binging, Beckett wraps fart jokes inside banana peels. The set up is barn-big and the delivery misses with painful deliberation. There is a slip, and a fall, but Walker shows all the work and still delivers a lackluster product.

Failure is inherent in comedy, but the kind of failure in this production is not Jacques Lecoq’s expert who attempts his signature and fails. It is not the harried go-getter who outsmarts the system only to trip on his own pride. It’s not even just an actor working hard at nonchalance. This goes beyond bad acting to intentional failure, as if it were Walker, the director, performing the failure instead of Walker, the actor. The performance is constantly dying, and at a geologic pace that further subverts any pathos, comedy, or even interest.

The saving grace of short works collections is that anything one dislikes will be over soon. Life = Play offers enough variation from Beckett that most will find something to like.

Passing Strange Is At Least Two-Thirds Awesome


Don’t think of Passing Strange as a musical. Most people think they hate musicals—probably because most musicals are terrible, or at least not good enough to turn a profit—but when a show has great music that has a vital relationship with its story, musical theatre can be everything one wants in a performance. SideCountry Theatre’s current production of Passing Strange (at ACT through June 29) is undeniably musical theatre and undeniably flawed, but it is one of the better shows you’re going to see in Seattle.

Passing Strange’s 2008 Broadway production (created by the monomial Stew with Heidi Rodewald under the guidance of Annie Dorsen) was nominated for seven Tonys and won for Best Book. This says more about the Tony Awards than the musical, as the book is the weakest part of this show (the Drama Desk gave it Best Musical, Lyrics, and Music).

This story of a black man passing for a black man is a philosophical picaresque that sounds awfully autobiographical despite Stew’s insistence to the contrary. However the language is brilliant. It slips in and out of verse such that the words slide along a spectrum from dialogue to song with pit stops at singer-songwriter interstitial patter and spoken word performance.

His search for authenticity takes the Youth (as the script calls the main character) from the image-obsessed world of middle class black Los Angeles to avant-garde Europe only to get the pretense and narcissism slapped out of him (if tenuously) by life and family. The character and the music are sufficiently appealing that what should be a tiresome tale is charming, entertaining, and sometimes moving.

The end of the story is not satisfying, as it lives in a world of metaphysical ambiguity that suggests an unfinished journey, but the production wipes away these concerns by rocking out. In the words of Fozzie Bear, “Let’s jump up and down and wave our arms, and get off stage.” Only, the performers remain on stage and invite the audience to join their dance party. This is not your typical musical theatre.

Staging this show without Heidi Rodewald and Stew is tricky business and doesn’t entirely work. The Broadway production (which I saw) was heightened by the presence of Stew and Heidi on stage with their band and the knowledge that developing the show had broken up Stew and Heidi’s romantic relationship. This production casts the lead guitar (Kathy Moore—jaw-dropping as both instrumentalist and vocalist; invisible as a character) in the role of Heidi, which may not read for the uninitiated. Other detritus of the development process that lodged in the show and no longer makes sense includes a denouement centering on a NYC pretzel seller that barely worked in the original production.

LeRoy Bell is cast brilliantly as the Narrator (a role created by Stew). This is a musical that really wants to be a rock concert and Bell, a novice actor, occasionally looks like he regrets that it isn’t a rock concert. That fleeting awkwardness serves him and the show well and keeps the production very real.

Most of the time Bell does what he’s been doing for longer than his looks would suggest. He sings and plays catchy singer-songwriter pop songs and tells great stories between numbers. For much of the show he seems like a disinterested storyteller. When he and the Youth face one another directly it has the quality of a reveal.

Marlette Buchanan is Bell’s stylistic foil. In her performance as Mother she is all musical theatre grandeur with pipes and playing that dampen the eyes. Andrew Lee Creech (Buchanan’s fellow cast member from Intiman’s excellent Trouble In Mind) nail’s Youth’s immaturity without completely losing our sympathy.

There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, but DeSean Halley stands out for his moves and his drumming. His character’s insistence that he has no rhythm is the phoniest moment in the show. Those characters lean more toward the disposable than the self-indulgent.

Shontina Vernon brings no-nonsense swagger to her roles. She’s loud and upfront in her most prominent character, the leader of a Berlin commune, but she finds the softness and humanity in the character too. The lack of chemistry she has with Creech is exacerbated by heavy foreshadowing that this relationship is doomed.

Yesenia Iglesias goes from a slightly overblown late 20th Century black take on Booth Tarkington’s “Seventeen” year old heartthrob to the posturing anger of an anti-capitalist feminist porn-maker. Her key role as the Dutch barista, Marianna, emphasizes the commonality in each of these sweet, seductive characters.

J Reese gets some of the best character bits—and, oddly, all overtly gay characters. He doesn’t go to the scenery-chewing extremes suggested by the cultured and cloistered rebellious reverend’s son, Franklin, or the riot cabaret drag queen, Mr. Venus, but he gets the vulnerable authenticity these heavy masks permit.

Technically the highlight is AJ Epstein’s lighting and Lara Kaminsky’s projections, which support the emotional and physical settings without overwhelming them. The band is also stellar under the direction of Jose Gonzales (Sandbox Radio). Candace Franks’s costumes do the job with a contemporary touch. Tyrone Brown’s direction is hit and miss with some clever choices in the staging and some less effective ones in the physical work and pacing.

Two thirds of this show is awesome and I’m pretty sure the rest is too but I couldn’t make out the words because the sound team was overwhelmed by the monumental challenges of this production. Much as one might wish Passing Strange had been staged at Washington Hall the Bullitt Cabaret does have the proper intimacy and informality for this show. However the big sound in the ¾ thrust is more than the sound team could handle. Just when things got really rocking on opening night the vocals would disappear. One hopes they’ll get that worked out with more practice. Another week and both the technical and artistic teams should be picking up their cues and making for a faster, more smoothly flowing show.

“The Price” Isn’t Right


Attention must be paid to the set dressing.

Arthur Miller’s The Price is set in an attic, that place where we put all the things we don’t want but with which we cannot part. The characters that populate this purgatory have come to negotiate a price on their history–they are selling the furniture. It’s a perfect setting for an Arthur Miller play and in ACT’s current production (through June 22nd) the set also nears perfection.

The Price is one of those plays in which resentments fester beneath the surface until circumstances force them to break out and someone says “let me tell you what really happened.” The script is solid, and respected, if not of Miller’s finest, but in this production, it’s the clutter of furnishings and props that steal the show. The acting and direction, on the other hand, leave something to be desired.

The play centers on Victor (Charles Leggett) the son of a millionaire, who went bankrupt in The Great Depression. Victor’s uncles took over the house, and let their brother live in the attic with all his stuff. Victor dropped out of college and became a cop to support his father. Victor’s brother, Walter, (Peter Lohnes) stayed in school, became a wealthy doctor and sent a little money home to dad.

When our play begins, long after the father’s death, the family is being forced to sell the contents of the attic before the house is demolished. The conflict between the good, happy, and poor Victor and the rich, flawed, and dysfunctional Walter is inevitable and largely predictable, despite some twists and detours in the layers of revelation. However the play belongs to Victor’s wife, Esther, (Anne Allgood) who is the only one who experiences any real change in the play. Unfortunately we don’t see that change occur. We know it happens because the script tells us but the actors show us nothing.

The characters are iconic, almost archetypal: Doctor, Cop, Housewife, (and Furniture Dealer). There is subtlety in the script but this production gives it no support, to say nothing of drawing out further nuance. Rather the complexities of the characters as written are dulled by the actors’ performance. They unfailingly aim for the obvious, retard their pacing, and play emotions instead of actions.

Lohnes is doctor-as-snake-oil-salesman. Yes, Victor says he doesn’t believe Walter but it’s a miracle anyone can, including the audience. He creates the problem of playing a bad actor: the line between playing bad acting and just badly acting is too fine for trifling.

Peter Silbert gives us the furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon as Solomon The Wise, but also Solomon the Borschty shtick-monger. Nonetheless Silbert tends to blow some energy into a play in which the actors rarely seem to be listening to one another.

Leggett employs his paunch and pate to easy effect along with his standard folksy, simple guy accent. While Alyssa Keene is cited as dialect coach she seems to have worked only with Silbert (who still needs some practice). Leggett gets to pull out the stops in Victor’s big emotional moment. It’s good craft and affecting, but that moment feels utterly disconnected from everything around it.

Allgood has the toughest role here. She doesn’t get to indulge in histrionics or interesting character bits and she endures casual misogyny from men who are always telling her to sit down, be quiet, or be more supportive, and calling her “kid”. On top of that her character embodies the dramatic action of the play. Unfortunately we miss that action entirely.

While the arena staging creates its own special challenges Victor Pappas’s direction inevitably found Allgood hunched over protectively at key moments, effectively shutting out the audience. All we could see was that Esther had a view of the world, listened to conversation, and came away with a new view of the world.

So, about that set; Robert Dahlstrom gives us a wonderful NYC skylight-crowned ceiling, high above the stage and a farrago of furnishings, much of it matched to precise descriptions in the set. Also excellent is Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound design. The music coming out of what appears to be a wind up phonograph, despite its rather electrical whine, is authentic and spot-on.

That nuance and complexity we wanted in the acting—we find it in Alex Berry’s lights and Rose Pederson’s costumes. The costumes in particular demonstrated excellent research and execution in character, and circumstance. Let’s hope future ACT productions will learn something from her.

Leaping Time on a River Dammed and Diverted

When Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia premiered in 1993 chaos theory was still relatively new to popular culture having its most popular debut with the publication of James Gleick’s book less than a decade earlier. The play is showing its age. The Public Theatre production does justice to the script but also highlights its flaws (at the Bathhouse on Greenlake through June 8) delivering the text with inconsistent acting and questionable direction.

eventpic-arcadia-poster1-569x883Stoppard is the lead practitioner of a class of plays, still flourishing today, that aspire to extreme cleverness, and some pithy statements on the human condition. Stoppard is both the most accomplished playwright of the genre and the most overtly erudite and allusive. For those of us who are less than fully enlightened, who were not bred in the halls of Oxbridge and Eton, have not studied Latin and philosophy, or read the suggested reading list, Stoppard’s works pass as a river. They are recognizable in their entirety and even in the grosser details but much rushes past in a torrent of verbiage and allusion. It makes for a delightful swim for those who can happily accept and admit to a degree of ignorance. It can be rough going for anyone who sometimes finds himself feeling stupid and dislikes it.

Arcadia presents a pair of academics sleuthing after new discoveries in harrowed soil. Hannah Jarvis (an excellent Alyson Sadron Branner) is measured and careful, establishing relationships and collaborating on others’ pet projects to facilitate access to materials supporting her own pet theory. Enter Bernard Nightingale (Evan Whitfield), brash, arrogant, rude, and every bit as ambitious as Hannah, who jumps into her carefully prepared research grounds. Their paths cross in the library of a Derbyshire estate where, two centuries earlier, Byron was Byronic on a brief visit, and a host of other possibly significant minutia may have occurred.

Stoppard keeps things more dramatic than dry by dramatizing the history dug up by this misfit pair. The actual (fictional) events surrounding and resulting from that brief bardic visit play out in alternating scenes with those of the late 20th century research. This produces several effects that pique audience interest.

Dramaturgically the play unfolds as a mystery in which we see the detective’s attempts at solving the problem while we see the actual problem unfold. Here the late 20th century academics play the detectives and early 19th century aristocrats and their retinue play the problem so the play leaps back and forth across two centuries finding the rhymes in history. We enjoy the involvement of attempting to solve the mystery on our own all the more so because we get to see where the detective goes wrong. The difference between truth and hypothesis illustrates the detective’s character and something of human nature.

The suspects and witnesses of this particular mystery include Thomasina (the young Izabel Mar all but steals the show) the genius daughter of an aristocrat. Her tutor, Septimus (a flawless Trevor Young Marston), is nearly as volatile and virile as his (unseen) school chum, Byron. Of prime interest to the researchers is the estate’s resident poet, Ezra Chater (Brandon Ryan).

Stoppard overplays his hand in this. The historical characters turn out to be more interesting that the more contemporary ones. Nonetheless Bernard’s interest in Byron takes center stage while Hannah’s research gets short shrift in the plot and feels more like a device to establish rivalry. More thematically important is research by a member of the modern generation of aristocrats, Valentine (Trick Danneker), who is attempting to further understanding of chaos theory using the estate’s centuries of data on grouse hunting.

In both centuries there is a lot of pining, sex, and suggestion that also helps keep the audience’s interest, but women tend to come off as sluts or icebergs in these situations. The direction doesn’t try to counteract this tendency in the script. Jocelyn Maher has the thankless task of playing Chloë, who makes after Bernard like a cat in heat when she isn’t ordering people about. Maher shows fine ability in her earlier scenes.

The production frequently walks the line between professional and community theatre standards. Chelsea Cook’s costumes are often ill-fitting or ill-conceived. Craig Wollam’s set aims for more than its materials support with fluttering, unintentionally translucent flats. Robert Aguilar’s lighting is good and will look better with more practice for the board ops. One hopes that practice is all that’s needed by a sound design that lacks nuance.

The real damage is done by director, Kelly Kitchens, who often pushes the farcical elements of the play beyond the breaking point. She is adept at slapping classical lazzi onto a scene but does not execute comedy. The gags don’t grow but only repeat with pointless variation and poor execution—the clown roles are pawned off on the least expert members of the cast. The script stops while the gags play.

Kitchens does not drive the script into a consistent farce—despite the trio of doors—and each turn of hijinks quickly gives way to wit and intellectual pursuit. Unfortunately it sometimes sags when it returns to wit, especially in the 20th century parts. The production as a whole is inconsistent.

Whitfield demonstrates this inconsistency most dramatically going from curried bombast that bludgeons the audience into mild amusement to sharp wit that lands every joke when he’s allowed to scale down his performance. The effect is less of an arrogant blowhard than a manic-depressive.

Danneker bravely soldiers through the least showy role and wins our sympathy. If anything he underplays, which might be delightful in another production but gets lost here. Emily Goodwin does a lot of shouting as the 19th century Lady Croom and becomes interesting and engaging when she gives up the angry-equals-loud approach.

Even through the roadblocks of this production, and despite its flaws, Stoppard’s script both tickles and mesmerizes—more a laughing brook than a raging river. With any luck we’ll get to watch that stream rush by again soon under direction that doesn’t dam up the flow.

Implausibly Smart Comedy at Annex Theatre in “Chaos Theory”

Keiko Green in Chaos Theory at Annex Theatre
Keiko Green in Chaos Theory at Annex Theatre photo by Ian Johnston

Who really wants to live in a universe in which characters make organic choices and adhere to a plausible plot? Audiences who insist on these standards will lose out on a wonderfully satisfying evening during the run of Courtney Meaker’s Chaos Theory (at Annex Theatre April 18-May 17)—in full disclosure, Meaker is a former theatre critic for TheSunBreak.

This play has a lot going for it including an excellent set, by Robin McCartney, but needs better support from director Pamala Milstoy. The broad comic style that establishes major events via instructional guides winked enough on its own without any help from the actors.

Those instructional guides are intended to help Frannie, (Keiko Green), who’s girlfriend, Mack (Jana Hutchison), has left her; Frannie’s not coping well. To get her out of her funk Frannie’s friends, Seth (Drew Highlands) and Bach Evelyn Dehais), give her a book on cosmology. This choice may be more quirky than logical but it moves the plot forward, inadvertently inspiring Frannie to create a machine that will allow her to travel to a different universe in which she and Mack are still together. This works—with the aid of some plutonium from the neighborhood nuclear reactor—but also results in unintended consequences and questions of identity that never quite resolve.

While multiple universes are the topic on hand the unlikely details, such as the book on cosmology, and the casual plutonium hook-up, establish a world that is off-kilter from the get-go. Nonetheless later developments are sufficiently surreal to take us to universes farther beyond the looking glass.

In addition to the high-minded quirkiness the script often traffics in sensationally stupid comedy, which Mijatov’s direction inflates. Highlands as Seth, the straight guy, nails both the high and low humor and keeps us engaged. Dehais overdoes the butch as the transgender Bach. She sounds less masculine than crooner smooth and Guy Smiley announcer slick. This delivery makes the stupid comedy feel strictly cornball without relief from either irony or excessive earnestness.

Green delivers a strong performance as Frannie, finding the tricky balance between playing an annoyingly megalomaniacal character and actually annoying the audience. We never believe in Frannie’s mission but Green helps us want Frannie to succeed, if only in hopes that it will help her move on.

Hutchison also navigates challenging waters in playing an unambiguously obnoxious character (or characters) with whom we come to empathize.

Frannie’s depression gets a light touch. Her friends care and worry but frontload the exasperation. The depression is played for laughs and wins knowing smiles. Yes, the presentation is extreme, but in retrospect any of us who have subjected our friends and family to the moping of our heartbreaks will feel sheepish recognition.

The script is at its most engaging after intermission when the rules of the multi-verse loosen—at least in the minds of the characters—and much comes to rest on questions of identity.

Meaker shifts the audience/performance relationship drawing us into the concerns of the characters by resting our entire understanding of the play on the question the characters must answer. Their search goes from frivolous to effective, but Meaker is wary of copping out with a deus ex machina or a simple twist (a la Sixth Sense or Fight Club). As with the rest of this very real universe of soft-edged gender and orientation this is not a world of either/or, but of multiple possible answers. Meaker suggests the possibilities without committing to any one. In Chaos Theory uncertainty is, for once, both comforting and satisfying.