Despite best efforts of able cast, Pony World Theatre production by eight local playwrights suffers from superficiality, writes critic Misha Berson.
Welcome to New York/Nashville/San Francisco/Montana. Want to buy a nice little home around here? Hey, it’s all the same America, give or take a few foibles and fetishes.
If you need further proof that “American Archipelago” was penned by committee (eight accomplished local playwrights are credited), consider the jumpy tone and texture as well as the conflated burgs in this energetic but superficial seriocomic take on American attitudes and neuroses. The Pony World Theatre production plays at 12th Avenue Arts through Aug. 12.
Eight “neighbors” somehow share the same all-American cul-de-sac (a la “Avenue Q”), although the city in which they are located changes regularly via announcements by real estate agent Bev (Shermona Mitchell). Before a nifty set of townhouse exteriors, they all dance, picnic and block party together. And in monologues, these purposeful eccentrics represent an urban cross-section of gay and straight, Asian American and Latino, black and white, working and middle-class America as they ruminate on such meaty concerns as racism, sexuality, homelessness and female autonomy.
Through Aug. 12. Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$20 (archipelago.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006).
Their obsessions and yearnings are meant to elicit both laughs and pathos. Ellen (Rebecca Goldberg) raises chickens in her yard and adores them more than her fellow humans, even the young vagabond she’s adopted as a surrogate daughter (Kenna Kettrick). Luis (Carter Rodriquez) equates pain with love, and begs his lovers to be cruel to him. Corrine Magin’s wannabe chef, Julia (who obliges Luis by pelting him with tomatoes), wants to open a restaurant with elevated “Tex-Mex Middle Eastern fusion” cuisine. But nobody can stomach her bizarre concoctions (marshmallow deviled eggs, anyone?).
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Bracketing the musings and fraught/absurd interactions are enjoyable postmodern dance breaks to pop tunes, beginning with a delirious, then dirge-like, romp to the Pharrell Williams hit “Happy.” It doesn’t take a social scientist to discern the irony here: the first 10 minutes of “American Archipelago” mock some national ideal of euphoric happiness — and the next 75 minutes demolish that long-debunked notion as delusional.
This theatrical assemblage, kept in buoyant motion by director Bobbin Ramsey, paints modern American culture with a very broad brush — more like lots of little brushes. But even in a fairly abstract theater piece, a setting that’s everywhere is not really anywhere, and cartoons with hang-ups aren’t complex characters. (Perhaps a more detailed portrait of our own city in flux would have felt less generic.)
A vibrant cast does what it can to make up for a lack of thematic complexity and illuminating specifics. Standouts among the actors include Rodriquez, Craig Peterson as a sexually frustrated ex-con husband and Bob Williams as an endearingly lonesome and genuine fellow.
As for the playwrights, it would be difficult to single out the extent of each author’s contributions, but those who know their individual plays might guess a few. Safest thing is just to name them in alphabetical order: Holly Arsenault, Kelleen C. Blanchard, Tré Calhoun, Vincent Delaney, Brendan Healy, Maggie Lee, Sara Porkalob and Seayoung Yim.