Theater review

Shiny, sugary and gleefully nonsensical, Trish Harnetiaux’s “Tin Cat Shoes” is like a candy apple — only it’s not an apple; it’s a tennis ball. The sheen of workplace satire glistens familiarly at first, but it only takes a single bite to realize this is something willfully odder.

Washington Ensemble Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Harnetiaux’s play, which premiered in 2018 from New York’s Clubbed Thumb, a breeding ground for experimental work that’s responsible for breakout hits like Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist “The Wolves” and Wenatchee-born Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which went to Broadway and was nominated for a best-play Tony.

“Tin Cat Shoes” is not the kind of play that was ever in much danger of achieving that level of crossover appeal.

An absurdist fantasia that skewers the idea of work as innately meaningful, “Tin Cat Shoes” layers digression upon digression, a knot of shaggy dog stories that’s amusing and enervating in about equal measure. The spinning plates wobble early and often, but in WET’s production, directed by artistic director Maggie L. Rogers, there’s a cracked energy that keeps them aloft.

At the shoe store that gives the play its title, it’s the first day for Gemma (Gloria Alcalá), who’s learning the ropes from Cheddar (Rachel Guyer-Mafune), Lunch (Mario Orallo-Molinaro) and Pepper (Kiki Abba). In the middle of the floor sits a huge pile of unsorted shoes waiting to be paired up. Some shoes don’t have a match, the veterans explain, in a neat metaphor for the play’s anarchic structure.

While Alcalá keeps it even-keel, the others jump feet first into the silliness. Guyer-Mafune is reliably impish as a feminist literature grad whose principle-minded demeanor is undermined by a hedonist streak. (Early on, she chases an inhaler puff with a vape hit.) Orallo-Molinaro’s dimly sweet raconteur brims with unwarranted confidence. Abba, whose Pepper is searching for material for a follow-up to her first novel about working at Whole Foods, dissolves her apparent amiability in an acid solution.


In a departure from basically every other piece of fiction about people working dead-end jobs, these three love working at Tin Cat Shoes.

That devotion extends to boss Rex (Drew Highlands), a “systems guy” whose command of motivational nothing-speak wouldn’t rival any random middle manager. As part of his system, he’s organized a team-building excursion to the Pacific Northwest wilderness, somewhere around the Yakima River basin.

There, the system goes down — or does it? — and there’s a hungry bear involved — or is there?

The shoe-store employees, bursting with camaraderie only moments earlier, can’t seem to agree on what just happened, or what should happen next. In the audience, we’ve become dearly acquainted with the feeling.

Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “Tin Cat Shoes” maintains the wild-eyed momentum necessary to sell the absurdity for quite some time, but things start to get rickety in the third act when the characters find themselves in a suddenly conjured casino. Gemma becomes fully indoctrinated into the madness at a roulette table while Pepper finds new inspiration in a nachos menu.

There’s an interesting idea in “Tin Cat Shoes” about the way a capitalistic society demands we ascribe significance to the mundane, as when Pepper rapturously reads nacho toppings and postures it as literary genius. Harnetiaux’s vision of enthusiasm as a commodity has merit, but in lifting a middle finger to the system, the play feels mostly random for random’s sake.

Still, this is the kind of material that WET enlivens, and in the company’s first full-length live production since the pandemic, the game cast and the striking design elements (in particular, the fanciful set from Parmida Ziaei) make for an appealing detour from the constrictions of narrative coherence.

“Tin Cat Shoes”

By Trish Harnetiaux. Through May 2; 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$40; masks and proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus test (see website for details) required (206-325-5105;