Washington Ensemble Theatre's skillful cast and crew find the right fusion of deadliness and absurdity to complement Guillermo Calderón's strange comedy of menace.
Marcela and Alejandra are on the lam. They had been staying at an anarchist squat, living their version of the revolution — arguing with comrades about the limits of pacifism, planting late-night bombs to shatter bank windows, a little sex on the side, that kind of thing.
But when the cops raided the place, they split. The other 20 squat-mates got arrested, leaving the pair alone and to their own devices to further The Cause. Now they’re waiting in a startlingly white, minimalist, expensive-looking apartment (imagine the aesthetic opposite of a stereotypical squat and you’ve about got it) for an incendiary device from someone else: a guerrilla bomb maker who slowly, silently walks onto the stage in Guillermo Calderón’s “B” with an air of mysterious authority and alluring peril.
He also looks kind of funny: tight, shiny black pants, black leather gloves, a blood-red coat with cartoonishly large shoulder pads, a black-and-white face mask with a spiky black accent on the forehead. José Miguel’s overall aspect is a little bit “Eyes Wide Shut” and a little bit Klaus Nomi.
Marcela and Alejandra are wearing masks, too: one silver, one purple, with lacy fabric dangling past their chins, like something you’d see at a Mardi Gras ball. They’re all trying to observe underground, paramilitary, security-culture protocols — their cover story is being at a party — but in that clinically white apartment, they sure look silly doing it.
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“B” doesn’t specify anything about sets or costumes in its script, but Washington Ensemble Theatre director Jay O’Leary and her design team (set by Lex Marcos, lights by Tristan Roberson, costumes by Ricky German) find just the right visual fusion of deadliness and absurdity to complement Calderón’s strange comedy of menace. So does the skillful, four-person cast.
Alejandra (Sophie Franco) is the clever, simmering member of the duo; Marcela (Klarissa Marie Robles) is the tenderhearted but harebrained revolutionary. The nosy, bizarre neighbor Carmen (Shermona Mitchell, who gives a marvelously outsized performance that stops just shy of being too over the top) occasionally crashes the “party” with loopy observations, apropos of nothing: “I read books. Big books. But I don’t want to read too much. I don’t want to become too intelligent. That’s painful. I’ve been told. We should all be average. Thinking is good. Don’t get me wrong. My brain is the second-most-free organ in my body!”
Meanwhile, Craig Peterson’s José Miguel is laconic but clearly frustrated with how disorganized and distracted his bomb-planters are. We can’t see his face beneath the mask, but Peterson works wonders with pauses and slight vocal inflections, occasionally leaning forward, touching his masked forehead with one gloved hand.
In one bit, he asks why they want to plant a bomb. “To protest,” Marcela answers. “Protest what?” After a confused pause, she says: “Protest everything … you know.” He repeats the question. She thinks for a moment. “Because of … because of the system.” Then she begins to riff: repression, prisons, assassinations, injustice, freedom, war, peace.
Even beneath the mask, we can tell he’s underwhelmed.
“B” mostly sails on this wry humor. The revolutionaries’ code words for bomb are “cheese” or “cow,” which layers their direst lines, during a debate about whether bombs should be used for pure vandalism (“like graffitiing a wall,” Alejandra says, “but loud”) or violence (spraying nails into passers-by), with some comic frosting: “Listen, we’ve planted loads of cheeses and we’ve never killed anyone.” “Cows kill. They’ve killed before … Do you think there are good cows and bad cows?” “All cheeses are the same.” “I was taught to make cheeses for war. And that’s what I make. War cheeses.”
But the playwright is only gently mocking the revolutionaries. He also gives them deeply sympathetic monologues about real injustice; friends who’ve been locked up for political crimes, or killed by the police; and the slower, grinding pressure of living in a world subsumed by the twin, ever-more-suffocating forces of capitalism and the state.
Calderón grew up in Chile, which experienced an enigmatic bombing campaign between 2005 and 2014. Most of the cheeses were planted outside banks, police stations and other corporate/government buildings with several supposedly anarchist groups (or a few groups working under multiple names) claiming responsibility. The campaign wounded a few people, but shattered lots of windows. “During those years,” he wrote in 2017, “Chileans remained mostly indifferent to the bombs.”
Despite its comedy at the revolutionaries’ expense, “B” is not a didactic play. Calderón lets the ambivalence of his characters, with their hurt hearts and would-be-soldiers’ minds, live for a while on stage without insisting we embrace them or reject them.
The performers execute that dance marvelously: Franco’s bluster as Alejandra, Robles’ combination of wounded and flighty and Peterson’s pitiful but defiant moment of admitting he’s been around the world (“I robbed banks in Rome, I joined a black army in Angola, I found free love in Frankfurt … I entered free Managua with a rifle on each arm, I bled two liters in Sri Lanka”) but is sorely disappointed that the revolution still hasn’t taken hold. “We used to kill kings,” he laments. “We used to kill millionaires. And now all we do is make threats on the internet.”
The speech, like the play, is curdled humor — the kind of funny that makes you want to slouch.
“B” by Guillermo Calderón. Through Jan. 28; Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave, Seattle; $15-$25; 206-524-1300; washingtonensemble.org.