Intiman Theatre has been through some troubled times in recent years, but it is seeking to rise from the ashes in a new incarnation as a summer theater festival with a repertory company. Managing Director Keri Kellerman spoke with me briefly before the production of "Dirty Story" about her excitement for Intiman’s new vision.
Certainly, Seattle could use a summer theater festival to fill in the gap between seasons so I hope to see Intiman succeed. The Intiman Theatre Festival contains four very different productions. Up first for me is "Dirty Story," written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, with a creative set designed by Jennifer Zeyl.
"Dirty Story" starts with a chess game and ends with a poker game, and there’s a message there. In fact, the script is teeming with messages and metaphors and layered with symbolism. Spoiler alert: Part of the play’s power is in its twists and turns, so if you plan to go, you may not want to read farther.
In Act I, noted as "Fiction," we meet Brutus (Shawn Law), a cranky, chess-playing, world-weary author, and Wanda (Carol Roscoe), a young graduate student and aspiring writer who idolizes Brutus. They’ve met up to discuss her manuscript, and despite his crushing criticism and their resulting argument, they form an odd bond. As Brutus says, "Even conflict requires common ground," and as they argue, we can see them establishing exactly that common ground.
Clearly they find enough common ground to continue the conversation because the next time we see them they are having dinner at Brutus’ warehouse apartment discussing the movie, "The Perils of Pauline." Brutus calls the movie the perfect illustration of the fact that only victims and villains exist in the world. "What about the hero?" asks Wanda. "There are no heroes," says Brutus, "only victims and villains."
In discussing the movie he coaxes her into a costume and onto a ladder where he ties her up and threatens her life in one of the best scenes of the play. Both actors find that delicate balance between disturbing and sexy in a completely gripping and believable way, creating a terrifyingly beautiful relationship between them. "Now, there’s a ’we’," says Brutus.
In the midst of that tenuous intimacy and odd balance of power, Frank (Quinn Franzen) bursts in through the door ready to save the day. (Earlier we’ve met Frank but only as an obnoxious guy in the park talking on his cell phone.) Wanda waves him off but takes his gun, turns it on Brutus and announces, "Call me Israel!"
When we return to Act II, now labeled "Non-fiction," suddenly the human characters are superimposed with caricatures: Frank is the bumbling, paternalistic USA, Brutus is Palestine having a temper tantrum, Wanda is seductive Israel who can hold her own with the big boys in power and Lawrence (Allen Fitzpatrick), who was a quirky chess player in Act I, is now Great Britain, reduced to lackey status by the U.S.
Brutus and Wanda together are a squabbling couple with a dysfunctional power dynamic, and Frank wades in to referee with the help of Lawrence, his bully boy with a big stick. (Get it?)
Writing about an issue rather than about people is tricky, and, in this case, the script often veers between subtlety and heavy-handedness, sometimes landing in that sweet spot where it gets it just right. The writing is clever and there are sparklingly brilliant moments, and for a play about the Israel/Palestine conflict, it’s starkly funny and unapologetically satiric.
Wanda dances around the apartment in fatigues with her toy tank, Brutus straps on a bomb and waxes poetical about his heritage, which he "saw in a movie once," and Frank and Lawrence have a lovely number where they sing "You Light Up My Life" together.
Roscoe and Law as Wanda and Brutus really capture the unhealthy power dynamics combined with sexual fascination that create an unsettling and complex relationship built on desire, mutual understanding and loathing.
Franzen as Frank is a dumb and gentle cowboy who just wants to be a hero, but who also has a gambler’s eye for weak spots, and his relationship with Fitzpatrick as Lawrence echoes in a milder way the tone Brutus and Wanda have set. Seeing the power dynamics of nations shrunk down to interpersonal terms certainly gives one food for thought.
"One of the ongoing concerns that I have is how to be intimate with another human being. Another is how to invite everybody to the party," says Shanley. I can see both his fascination with these questions and his intelligence in the script, but ultimately I wish he had kept his lens focused on the smaller, subtler scale and let the audience make the jump.
"Dirty Story" runs through August 25 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-441-7178 or visit www.intiman.org.