Lauren Weedman's latest harrowing solo adventure runs at ACT through Aug. 12.
Watching great solo performers always feels a little bit like watching a physically dangerous act in a small circus where the employees probably don’t have health insurance. You can see the person under the spotlight, the knives she’s about to juggle while standing on galloping horses, then you worry about her safety — all while acknowledging that you’re simultaneously queasy about the fact that you paid good money to sit there in the dark to feel afraid for her.
Lauren Weedman is that kind of solo performer. (Her latest harrowing solo adventure, “Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” runs at ACT through Aug. 12.) She’s enchantingly funny, then says raw things in public (about betrayal, insecurity, revenge) that some of us would hesitate to even whisper in private. Then she’s sardonically funny again, telling jokes as one character, then switching characters to witheringly mock the stupidity of her other characters’ jokes — even though she wrote all those jokes.
Sample meta-joke, in which Weedman throws stupid stereotypes around like firecrackers: Weedman uses “der” in a “dumb” Southern voice, then switches to a Southern character who takes exception to the “der” and Southern accent as shorthand for “dumb,” then switches to another character who says she uses “an Asian accent” when she’s trying to sound smart. All the while, Weedman — like her contemporary Young Jean Lee — is hyper-aware that she’s making everyone in the audience feel very uncomfortable.
“If people freak out,” she said (in an interview after the performance I attended), “it’s just going to be at me.”
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“Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” starts on a dual track. Weedman plays herself (as “Lauren”) talking on a cellphone to someone about a real-life crisis (Weedman’s husband had an affair with the babysitter, which got written up in real-life tabloids), then plays another version of herself: Tammy Lisa, the host of a clichéd, country-music, “hey, y’all”-style TV show, who is just trying to tap-dance her way through the forced-smile, B-list fame game. (Tammy Lisa’s back story: She got booted off “The Grand Ole Opry.” Weedman’s real-life back story: She was born to very young parents in Appalachia who wrote “Tammy Lisa” on the birth certificate and promptly put her up for adoption.)
Eventually, the characters Lauren and Tammy Lisa meet on the set of Tammy’s show, and the rest is a triple-meta-backflip dive into who’s whom and what’s what and whether either of them has a right to be mad at their respective husbands for drinking, cheating, and being generally embarrassing people.
The show is very, very funny — painfully so, at times. Weedman plays all the characters (including the feckless husbands, a spacey but wise country side musician, Lucinda Williams and the gut-clenchingly clueless babysitter) with withering intensity. As her alter-ego Tammy Lisa says in a moment of desperation, while trying to look good in front of the TV cameras: “We’re all just skeletons covered in leotards made of skin, walking through the dark on this big ol’ rock that Jesus made.”
And it has that unmistakable frisson of watching someone juggle knives in public.
In an interview a few days after the performance I attended, Weedman said that she was rewriting the show from day to day, and sometimes from moment to moment. (Except for the sound and light cues — she said she was very specifically instructed not to disorient anyone working the tech boards. Otherwise, it’s her show.)
“I wanted freedom with this show, hope for myself,” she said. “But I also wanted to explore the idea that I’m worthless. I live in this professional world where you can keep propping yourself up with TV jobs, and say: ‘Hey! I’m okay because I was in nine episodes of ‘Arrested Development’ for two seconds! But it’s like being a gambling addict. You never get the same high.”
So Weedman is doing what she does best — being brilliant and weird while juggling knives in public. “All my plays are personal, but this feels the most personal,” she said. Her son is eight years old and someday he’s going to have to hear the whole story about why dad doesn’t live with mom anymore, but the babysitter does.
“At some point, I had this idea that I’d have my son offstage for the whole show,” she said. “And I would tell the audience he was there, so he’d be aware of everything I was saying, and they’d know he’d be there, just so they’d know I wasn’t saying anything I wouldn’t tell him. Then, at the end, I’d bring him out so they could see him.”
It was a typically brilliant, risky, complicated, snake-eating-its-own-tail, Lauren Weedman-style idea: Make the audience listen to difficult stories from two unreliable narrators, then imagine what that story sounded like to a real-life kid, implicated in those stories, hiding backstage.
“But for a lot of reasons,” she said, “that was not a good idea.”
Instead, the play ends with her playing a tender song to her son on a ukulele — I won’t spoil the ending. It’s appropriately unexpected. Just as a Weedman show should be.
“Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” through Aug 12; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$80 (prices subject to change); 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org.