Local playwright Nick Stokes and director José Amador combine smashed produce, Beckettian comedy and innovative storytelling in this production at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle.
Putting aside the trauma of the past is as difficult as removing a stubborn tomato stain from a white shirt in “Duels,” an absorbing work of agricultural absurdity from local duo Nick Stokes and José Amador.
The smell of fresh soil is immediately apparent upon entering 12th Ave Arts’ studio space, where set designer Silas James has assembled a garden in two stage-spanning isosceles triangles — but part of the crop is rotten. Among the zucchini and spinach and carrots are two corpses.
With that setting, “Duels” intrigues before it even begins, and it doesn’t reverse course when the lights dim.
by Nick Stokes. Through Sept. 10, at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $10-$20 (duels.brownpapertickets.com)
Marianna de Fazio stars as Irene, a seemingly seasoned gardener whose deliberate raking and planting don’t do much to conceal a troubled mind. All is not well on her slice of farmland, where within the play’s first five minutes she’s had to make a brutal decision regarding a cow and her newborn calf.
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Things haven’t exactly been great up to that point, either, as we soon discover in Stokes’ nonchronological script, which is meticulous in doling out small morsels of information as the story crystallizes in reverse.
Telling a story backward is old hat by now, but there’s a lot more going on here than a mere structural inversion. Each scene unfolds like a degraded photocopy of the subsequent one, with details and motivations that will eventually provide clarity appearing initially as smudgy blobs. The effect is (perhaps unintentionally) amplified by lingering vegetable stains from previous performances on the actors’ costumes; the mess may be in the past, but it’s inescapable in the present.
And things do get messy. So much so that garbage-bag ponchos are provided for anyone who might want to sit in the front row and not risk getting splattered with produce pulp.
The mess-makers? That would be John (Daniel Christensen), Irene’s workaholic husband, and Juan (Carter Rodriquez), a migrant worker hired by John to tend their newly purchased property.
John and Juan’s interactions morph from Beckettian comedy of mutual futility to blood-pumping clashes of passion, the specter of violence hanging over every one of the plays’ tableaux in the form of smashed vegetables. Director Amador never struggles to define the tone of any given moment, no matter how abruptly “Duels” veers from the absurd to the earnest.
That assuredness extends to a cast that embraces each tonal and behavioral alteration with aplomb. Rodriquez finds comedy in Juan’s absent-mindedness, but his performance ends up becoming deeply poignant as he expresses how digging in the dirt is more than simply a means to an end for him.
Christensen’s capitalist cad isn’t quite so complex, but beneath the Wall Street braggadocio is an undercurrent of unfulfilled longing that a farmhouse getaway isn’t coming close to assuaging.
And then there’s de Fazio, whose Irene isn’t subject to the same wild fluctuations as her cast mates, but is no less fascinating. The subtleties of her hope and heartbreak are portrayed with the same level of care as every other aspect of this superb production.