You can tell Erin Markey means business by the way they exit a stage. (Markey prefers they/them pronouns.)
Last weekend, at the end of “Singlet,” Markey’s gloriously dizzying two-person show at 12th Avenue Arts, the audience sat still for a moment, unsure what was happening. For the past 90 minutes, Markey and performing partner Emily Davis had glided like figure skaters through various characters in a series of intimate pairs (friend and friend, teacher and teacher, teacher and student, mother and daughter, father and daughter, wrestlers locked in combat, etc.), sometimes blurring the borders between them. Then the two sat on a couch, staring at us.
Markey gave a part-smirk/part-smile and pantomimed a little golf clap. We took our cue. Markey walked over to a stuffed-bear-like automaton, squeezed its hand and set it on the stage to wave at us. It wasn’t a typical curtain call where an actor breaks character and returns to us, transformed into “real” relief, or exhaustion, or delight at the applause. Markey and Davis looked at the audience insouciantly, waved and walked offstage, leaving us with the mildly eerie bear, as if to telegraph: We haven’t rejoined your world. You’re still in ours. Goodnight.
All of which is to say: Markey and Davis know how to own a room. The duo, wearing high, braided ponytails and wrestling singlets (which are both symbolic and practical for this highly physical show), caress and grapple around the shifting zones of intimacy: affection, frustration, vulnerability, manipulation, hilarity, rage, subtle eros (a few almost-kisses) and more emphatic sexuality, as when Davis sits on a couch, whisper-rapping the Ying Yang Twins’ lewd song “Wait” while Markey grinds on top.
The two are longtime friends and collaborators — sometimes the awkwardness, absurdity and glory of their communion feels like something we shouldn’t be watching. (In one tragicomic scene, a mother and daughter descend into a fight by the grandmother’s deathbed and have to shut the window so they can’t hear the neighbors having sex.) In the script notes, Markey invites other close friends to perform “Singlet,” but says the staging should “reflect the idiosyncratic physical intimacies of their own particular relationship … ‘Singlet’ is interested in the matrix of voices that inhabit an individual, the slipperiness between those voices, and how two people’s matrices might intersect in different configurations to create a relationship.”
The play doesn’t look like anything else on Seattle stages these days — and that’s the point.
” ‘Singlet’ is the kind of theater I’m excited about and looking around and not seeing here,” said Samie Spring Detzer, artistic director of Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET), which brought Markey and Davis from New York for a two-weekend run. “It’s artist-generated, performance-based art, less driven by an Aristotelian script. That realm of experimentation and non-literalism is exciting to me. I’ve been inspired by work at On the Boards, which makes a lot of space in their season for dance, and I was thinking: ‘What is the theater equivalent of that?’ “
So WET launched GUSH, one show per year brought from somewhere else. “Singlet” is the first iteration.
When Detzer pitched the idea to WET, she said, one of the ensemble members raised the immediate question: Shouldn’t the company stick to advocating for Seattle artists? Just a few years ago, the Seattle theater scene simmered with a quiet fury about the big houses hiring so many out-of-town artists. (Aftershocks from the 2008 financial crisis, among other factors, helped taper that trend, and regional theaters eventually began hiring more locally.) “I think that’s definitely an important aspect of the ecosystem here,” Detzer said. “But I think a rich, vibrant arts community needs the influx of new ideas.”
Adding an out-of-town show to each WET season is a financial risk, Detzer said, but costs less than mounting another from-the-ground-up production — so far. (This year, Markey and Davis are crashing at Detzer’s apartment.) “Bigger institutions can’t afford tours anymore, but because we’re always operating on a wing and a prayer, our scrappy way allows us to take that risk.”
Or, as Markey says in “Singlet,” playing a photographer trying to coax her subject (perhaps friend?) into wearing an extra-small shirt: “What you are afraid to do is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do.” (“Emerson!” the photographee replies with playful indignation. “How dare you quote a great!”)
I’m guessing — and hoping — the GUSH gamble will pay off. “Singlet” is the kind of theater Seattle should be thirsty for.
“Singlet” by Erin Markey. Through May 5; Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts., 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25; washingtonensemble.org