A plain wood table, with two wood chairs, stands on an otherwise bare stage in an empty theater. The only sound is the low thunder of the HVAC system. In the middle of the table, a plexiglass divider. At the bottom of the divider, a slot cut for a stack of notecards within easy reach from either side of the table. On each card, an arrow points to either person A or person B, indicating who should draw next.
Two strangers (wearing masks) enter the theater, sit, size each other up. We are the performers and the audience. The strangers begin drawing cards, each of which gives us text to speak, yes-or-no questions to ask, or actions to take. “A Thousand Ways Part Two: An Encounter,” at On the Boards, begins.
In the stripped-down theater, “Part Two,” by experimental, New York-based theater company 600 Highwaymen, looks stark and forbidding at first — are we waiting for Godot? — but quickly turns toward something softer and more delicately strange.
We are getting to know each other through the questions: Have you ever had to wear a uniform? (Me, yes.) Have you ever scaled a fence? (Yes.) Baked a cake? (No.) Rewired a lamp? (Yes.) Been in the room when a baby is born? (No.) Have you ever slept next to a weapon? (Yes.) Do you know how to drive a stick shift? (Yes.)
Each of us has automatically registered a few identifying details about the other. My partner knows my apparent age, apparent race, sense of style (or lack thereof), the texture of my voice.
What does the sum of all this information tell her about me? What doesn’t it tell? How much can we really know about each other, anyway? As one set of cards instructs me to ask my partner: “I wonder if you can find a little space between what you know of me, what I tell you and what you imagine?”
If all this sounds dangerously gooey, “Part Two” might surprise you — the experience is sometimes awkward, sometimes unexpectedly tender, cleverly scripted to ease us into vulnerability and disarm our more cynical defenses. (And let’s be real: 2020 has been a bitter, heavy year. If one of Seattle’s first in-person theater experiences since the pandemic errs a little toward the gooey, I forgive it.)
The three-part performances of “A Thousand Ways” are taking place all around the world (Singapore, Dublin, Abu Dhabi, Seattle) over a period of months: “Part One” happened in September, between strangers on the phone; “Part Three” is under construction, something involving a full audience once we cross the threshold into a post-pandemic world.
Though it had some early, pre-COVID test runs, “A Thousand Ways” quenches a pandemic-specific thirst: fresh intimacy with unfamiliar faces and voices. It demonstrates that, if we can sharpen our attention, there’s no such thing as small talk. Look carefully enough, and even the way someone responds to “have you ever played a slot machine?” (a furrowed brow, then yelp of laughter, as if the idea were absurd) reveals something deeper about the answerer.
The most memorable intimacies of “Part Two” come in those off-script flashes: Two of us reaching for a card at the same time, catching the surprise in each other’s eyes, or laughing as we touched through the plexiglass, trying to follow the cards’ directions to make impossible shapes with our hands. (We made an “X” and a mountain no problem — I don’t want to spoil the curveballs that come next.)
The duo 600 Highwaymen (Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone) plays with fracturing expectations and what pops out between the cracks. “This Great Country” (2012) staged Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with a bunch of actors and barely-actors in an Austin bingo hall and then an abandoned Manhattan shopping mall. In “Empire City” (2011), five actors changed roles every night to perform a recorded conversation between an older Long Island couple.
An earlier version of this project was called “A Thousand Ways to Listen” (which gives you a hint about what Browde and Silverstone are after), but the 2020 iteration is linked to the trajectory of the pandemic itself. “Part One,” in September, was a similar exercise between two strangers (yes-or-no questions; imagining ourselves elsewhere, like in a broken-down car in the desert; us counting together), but even more socially distanced — it happened over the phone.
“A Thousand Ways Part Three: An Assembly” promises, once it’s epidemiologically safe, to bring us all together for the mysterious final act — for those of us who’ve ventured through the weird phone call and the in-person awkwardness.
We’ll still be newly hatched from the isolations of lockdown, but will share a common wavelength from spending time in the “Thousand Ways” paradox. We’ll all have learned to nurture a fragile kind of intimacy with strangers while being reminded that other people are galaxies we’ll never fully understand.