The large percentage of kids in the audience combined with the clarity, simplicity and weak comedy of the opening monologue on astronomy had me cowering in anticipation of an evening of Bill Nye the Science Guy meets The Flying Karamazov Brothers minus the juggling. I felt a nightmare creeping up on me, rife in awkward puns and low-energy silliness wrapped around PBS weekday-afternoon didacticism. Glimmers of hope flashed through the sketch as the silliness slipped into absurdism. Then suddenly, out of a transition so seamless that it was over before I realized it had started, a monologue of strange and unnerving beauty drew together everything that had transpired into an précis of Creation and I was hooked.
Le Frenchword is a talented trio of performers who excel in all they do (outside their opening scene) and they do a lot. This production, directed by George Lewis and created by Sachie Mikawa, Carter Rodriguez, Lewis and John Leith features clown, dance, singing, quirky instruments, puppetry, and physical theatre, and some of the most finely executed stage combat I’ve seen. Mikawa does Hello-Kitty kawaii and plays melodica and toy piano. Rodriguez is the big man of fragile dignity playing guitar and teaching a master class in the power of pre-emptive sympathy. Ben Burris is an excellent physical comedian and a excellent singer who plays glockenspiel and finger-cymbals. They are so much fun I just want to run away from my life to go play with them.
The unfortunate astronomy lecture diffuses into something of a wallpaper theme that runs throughout the performance but never aspires to profundity or education even while it suggests universal truths. This is rough theatre that sometimes approaches the holy. It shows its work, but seeing the structure does nothing to diminish its efficacy. The lame three-legged cow is funnier because we can see that it has three legs so the actor’s other hand can make the udder. The work is so fresh and in the moment that it’s often unclear whether it’s being improvised on the spot or has just maintained the vibrancy of creative gestation.
There are puns, but not too many and some are downright clever. There is silliness but it is either completely absurd or totally integrated into the rest of the performance. There is a cappella, but it’s often quite good and ranges from Night on Bald Mountain to outlandish and hilarious word music.
This show has its version of a gun hanging over the fireplace and that gun gets talked about a lot but it never goes off. Yet, contrary to Chekhov’s dictum, this is part of the show’s charm—along with the house lights that never dim more than halfway. After all, plot is not the point here. Not much is explained in Fancy Mud but everything gains context. A large part of the fun comes in following the actors on wild tangents only to discover that each tangent returns to the same basic themes, rearranged to change our perception of them. The closest Le Frenchword comes to explaining Fancy Mud is when one of the actors asks, “Why are we doing this?” Their answer: “We do it for comedy,” and in the name of comedy no opportunity for ribaldry or vulgarity escapes Le Frenchword.
So what happened with that opening scene? Was it poor timing that made the lecturer seem over-indulgent with his colleagues and his outbursts unjustified or was it poor writing? Or could it be that some of us are too serious and too narrow-minded to enter easily into the world of Le Frenchword? Whatever the reason the first five minutes pass quickly and the rest of the show is as pleasing a trip into the mythology of the cosmos as you’re likely to find—or at least one with great music.
The Seattle run of Fancy Mud has come and gone so to catch the next performance you’ll have to make for the border. Le Frenchword plans to perform at the fringe festivals in Winnipeg (July 18-29), Calgary (August 3-11), and Edmonton (August 16-26). Help them show los Canucks what Seattle theatre can be through LF’s soon to be launched Kickstarter campaign or by checks made out to Sachie Abrego C/O Le Frenchword, 1122 East Pike St. #929 Seattle, WA 98122.