First up: West Coast premiere of ‘Teh internet Is Serious Business’ explores the hacktivist underworld.
Calling Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) one of the more polarizing theater companies in the city isn’t particularly controversial.
“Our biggest fans and our longest-time subscribers often hate about half of what we do,” says Samie Spring Detzer, WET’s artistic director. “But they keep coming back.”
If you’ve seen a WET show, you probably understand why.
Washington Ensemble Theatre
‘Teh internet is Serious Business,’ Sept. 15-Oct. 2
‘Straight White Men,’ Jan. 12-29, 2018
‘The Nether,’ April 27-May 14, 2018
12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$26; $60 season subscription (206-325-5105 or washingtonensemble.org).
Sometimes the play selections are a little baffling. Sometimes the company’s ambitions outpace the execution. But there’s a cutting-edge streak that rarely falters, and the productions are visually stimulating in a way that lots of fringe theater doesn’t even attempt.
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Detzer says the company is often wrestling with complicated political issues, and that inevitably spills over into the programming. This season, WET’s 14th, is no exception, with three plays coalescing around the theme of “toxic masculinity.”
As Detzer writes in her introduction to the season on the company’s website: “I am tired, as many of us are, of not acknowledging the evil men do. I feel a strong need to place myself, our company and the artists we work with squarely in the middle of the conversation about the pervasive power of the patriarchy and the dark and uncertain future we have created for ourselves.”
“Teh internet Is Serious Business,” Sept. 15-Oct. 2
The season opens with the West Coast premiere of Tim Price’s “Teh internet is Serious Business” (autocorrect-confounding typo intentional), which dramatizes a turning point in internet history: the formation of hacker group LulzSec, an offshoot of Anonymous founded in 2011 that wreaked prankish havoc across the web before many of its members were arrested. (Its motto: “The world’s leaders in high-quality entertainment at your expense.”)
Detzer read the play following its London premiere in 2014 and emailed the ensemble soon after: “This play is so awesome. We could never do it.”
But, with 14 actors, a choreographer, a dramaturge, a dialect coach, 50 costumes and the larger main stage at 12th Avenue Arts all at the ready, WET is doing it.
“[This is] absolutely our biggest show in 14 years,” Detzer said. “I’ve heard a couple of designers talking about creating this play like creating a musical.”
Directing is Wayne Rawley, a playwright known for “Live! From the Last Night of My Life” and the new artistic director at Theater Schmeater.
Taking place largely in the digital realm, “internet” is a play that requires a questioning of initial instincts about what things will look like, he said. Otherwise, every scene would just be characters hunched over keyboards.
“I’ve realized that those first choices don’t work,” he said. “There’s something about the play — it deserves being subverted. I’m thinking about the trolls watching us and what would they do?”
The play’s voice — almost instantly recognizable as the crude, insolent tenor of a 14-year-old boy’s, Rawley says — means there are a lot of vile things that get spewed. All in the name of laughs, of course.
That’s common behavior for adolescent boys, but these ones possess an intimate understanding of the most powerful communication tool ever invented.
“This play is really a history,” Rawley said. “This is not trying to represent the internet as it is today. But this is a moment where something started. And something started that will be with us for a long time.”
“Straight White Men,” Jan. 12-29
Up second is Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men,” directed by Sara Porkalob.
“If you know nothing about the show, and you hear the title, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s a WET show,’ Detzer said. “[But] it’s hyper-realistic and sensitive in a way that I think we don’t typically gravitate toward.”
A family drama set over two nights around Christmas, “Straight White Men” lives up to its title. The play’s about four white dudes: a dad and his three grown sons, the eldest going through a personal crisis that the others are trying to allay.
Porkalob, whose solo show “Dragon Lady” opens this weekend, wasn’t initially enthused about the play, despite being a fan of Lee’s work, which is often subversive and playful, she said.
“I read it and at first, I was really confused,” she said. “I was like, ‘What the hell? I don’t want to direct this play.’ It really looked at first glimpse like [it] was centering whiteness in a way that I didn’t want to perpetuate.”
But three or four readings later, her feelings shifted, and she knew she didn’t want anyone else directing it, she said.
It’s easy to identify aspects of toxic masculinity in something like a neo-Nazi march, but “Straight White Men” investigates a more insidious brand of toxicity present in those who would consider themselves allies, Porkalob says.
“They’re the people that walk down the street, we interact with at our jobs, even sometimes the people that we date,” she said. “[They’re] the people that campaign for Nikkita Oliver, and like the next second, will say something stupid about black women. These are the men that we know.”
The play takes its characters seriously, and isn’t dedicated to simply demonizing straight white men, Detzer said. It’s complicated to look at your privilege, and for the first time, maybe ever, this is a group that’s being ridiculed on a larger scale, she says.
“I’m certainly a fan of that, but I also am aware of the fact that it’s a complicated change,” she said.
“The Nether,” April 27- May 14
WET closes out the season with “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s disturbing vision of the near future, where highly realistic virtual reality allows men to engage in any and all sexual fantasy, including pedophilia.
“It is a dangerous place for artists to go into, because it is, I would say, maybe the only thing we can decide as a society is absolutely 100 percent horrendous,” Detzer said.
The play doesn’t exist to wonder about the morality of child sex abuse, but to ask whether it’s worth it to try to understand deviancy, she said.
There’s a through-line from “Teh internet is Serious Business” to “The Nether,” in which the real world certainly isn’t inured to activities that take place in a virtual space.
And though it deals with deeply discomfiting subject matter, that’s what honesty often feels like — a point you might apply to any of the three shows in WET’s season.
“There’s nothing about all of this that should come as a surprise to you, or to any of us, at this point,” Detzer says. “So let’s talk about it.”