For the past 10 years, Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) has been offering some of the city’s boldest, most irreverent and zestfully offbeat stage excursions in its tiny storefront venue on outer Capitol Hill.
Now the company is saying farewell to the locale (but not to Seattle) with a play that has WET written all over it: “The Hunchback of Seville,” a zany, if uneven, new mashup of historical critique and rambunctious snark, written by Charise Castro Smith.
WET trademark No. 1: A cool, compact set by Cameron Irwin. This one wedges into a tight space a 15th-century Seville bedchamber with a nobility-sized bed and a load of Spanish provincial tchotchkes, not to mention a roomy closet and a bathroom.
WET trademark No. 2: Nothing’s sacred. In Smith’s gleefully revisionist riff on rampaging colonialism (or, as one character terms it, “a freakin’ horrific bloodbath!”), the mock heroine is a hunchbacked brainiac with lust in her heart. Her patroness, Queen Isabella, is dying of what looks like a very scabby plague. And indigenous people from the New World “discovered” by Christopher Columbus introduce the story — before they’re offed, by their conquerors, with amusing shadow effects.
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WET trademark No. 3: Some of the actors, particularly Samie Detzer as Maxima, and Rose Cano as her long-suffering servant Espanta, are very adept at madcap, take-no-prisoners clowning, for which skill and abandon are essential.
Smith’s script, and Jen Wineman’s generally adept staging, belabor some jests and jibes at very large targets. The show could be a lot more fleet on its feet and more unflaggingly funny if there was about 20 minutes less of it.
But there is cleverness here, good laughs and a knack for turning what they used to teach in school about the triumph of Columbus and his patron Queen Isabella on its head — with silliness applied thicker here than savagery.
Maxima the nerd, we’re notified, was abandoned as an infant and sheltered by the Spanish royal family. But for reasons that become semi-clear later, in a woolly backstory of aristocratic intrigue, she’s confined to a tower. There she patters and putters, indulging her genius for math and mapmaking.
Meanwhile Talib (Ali el-Gasseir), the dashing Muslim lover Maxima pines for, is targeted by the Spanish Inquisition. (Remember the Monty Python version of that reign of terror? Smith borrows a few tricks and a comic tone from those Brits.)
The fugitive Talib, Isabella and the Infanta Juana (Libby Bernard), a spoiled psycho in line for the throne, all eventually converge in Maxima’s room, avoiding and seeking one another as per classic farce.
Then, well, you know — like, a revolver appears. An official of the Inquisition sports a very George W. Bush-esque drawl. There’s a lecture about amassing gold as the motivation for just about everything evil. And “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner is quoted.
You just have to go with the flow, and wade through a few stagnant pools. The most tiresome is an extensive hissy fit pulled by Barnard’s screechy Infanta. The initial few minutes of rampaging tantrum is plenty before the bit runs out of comic steam.
On the other hand, the many little flourishes of wit Detzer tucks into her endearing, slangy performance — like the childlike way Maxima hops onto her bed for a tête-à-tête, and her obtuseness when Talib’s half-dead compadre (Benito Vasquez) tries to explain her crush’s dire predicament — are deliciously reminiscent of the young Carol Burnett.
And whither WET? The company is moving its operation to the new 12th Avenue Arts facility on Capitol Hill later this year, which it will share with two other worthy crews: New Century Theatre Company and Strawberry Theatre Workshop.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org