A new series at Capitol Cider’s intimate basement theatre takes on Seattle’s privilege, by clowning on the city’s quirks and situating current inequities in a long history of displacement. The next show is on March 25, with two more episodes to follow.
Adding to the mix of Seattle’s many theatre companies comes a new one, MarisolMakes, which uses performer-devised, locally-driven satire to challenge aspects of Seattle’s cultural and political environments. Performances in its first series, In SEAtu: Rain & Coffee & Salmon & Weed, are held at Capitol Cider’s Ballast Bar, an intimate basement bar and stage in the saturated Pike/Pine area of Capitol Hill. The series title, In SEAtu (“in see-too”), is a play on words: in situ, the Latin phrase meaning on site or in the original place, in which the site is Seattle (hence the “SEA”). The sequence includes three more different shows and ensembles over the next three months.
The series was conceived by New York transplant Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, who also directs the works. An episode is devised by four actors, who then comprise the cast for each, playing in a style called bouffon (a type of clowning that involves elements of puffery and mockery). The shows are short, running about 45 minutes each, allowing plenty of time for audiences to gather and talk before or after if desired, or head off to another engagement for the rest of the evening.
The first of the four shows, called Rain, was held on February 27-28 and centered on homelessness. (There is a well-known observation that the worst part of homelessness in Seattle’s worst weather seasons isn’t so much the cold, but the inability to ever get dry.) The remaining shows of the series will delve into other important social issues and spring from three more of the region’s main obsessions: Coffee (on war, trade & ritual, with two shows on March 25), Salmon (on water, fishing & Indigenous communities, with two shows on April 29), and, of course, Weed (on pot, legalization & racial disparities, with one show each on May 29 & 30) (was it too cliche to hold it April 20?).
Using the bouffon style is a way of confronting those serious issues, explained Rosa-Shapiro, for the style requires the performers to be “direct and irreverent” as they approach the “complex, difficult themes with playfulness, humor, and fearlessness.” Upon arriving in Seattle, she had observed an unwillingness to grapple with inconvenient truths — an attitude of avoidance she found “stifling and maddening.” It was also, however, “a great inspiration for making art.”
Intrigued, I caught the series’ first piece, Rain, during its second and final showing. From the start, the show was a study in contrasts.
The setting was dark and quiet, with classical refined taste (think dark wood furnishings and old books). Candlelight and antique-looking fixtures illuminated the basement bar, where about the only hint of modernity was the flat-screen TV listing draft cider and beer selections.
And then in came the bouffons, four of them, chattering, giggling, and bumbling into things. One looked like an alien insect fairy wearing a hula hoop; another was a tottering sleeping bag. They roved around, making faces at and messing with the audience (but not too bad), before finally making their way on stage. In the intimate space, they remained within arms’ reach of the audience members at the communal tables just in front of them, and continued to play close through the duration.
The bouffon is a style of performative satirization, and these bouffons were there to take on Seattle: from Mayor Durkan’s style of promise that sounds authoritative but solves nothing, to the city’s development by forcing indigenous peoples out and into homelessness, to the public’s prioritization of its favorite vices (coffee and weed), to the detour into selfie activism (look good, get your evidence of it, then move on), to the machine of wealth fueling this breathtaking (and home-taking, and culture-taking) development. Bezos bucks were thrown and distributed. And just like that, we’re all rich!
The problem with trying to satirize Seattle is it’s a city that has so thoroughly satirized itself. In the most obvious example, Seattle had its own long-running and wildly popular local equivalent of Saturday Night Live called Almost Live! (which aired right before SNL throughout the ‘90s); the show was aimed largely at making fun of ourselves, and even now the die-hards will reference it wistfully (Ballard Driving Academy, anyone?).
Added to that, the more general problem with satirizing the political climate of today is that truth is, all around us, stranger than fiction. And so in the show’s attempts to satirize, it often seemed like they were instead acting out reality with mere over-the-top costumes and clownish movements. In that regard, it left me wondering: is there a way to satirize Seattle, and the current political climate locally and nationally, or is it just sad?
While this performance wasn’t perfect, it’s refreshing to see arts grappling with Seattle’s problems in different ways. This generative performance, in a small, intimate, and contrasting space, opens discussions while maintaining some much-needed humor in the mix.
And yet the performance experience in toto was a positive one. Two textual points felt particularly astute. First, highlighting the continuation of a long cycle of conquering and displacement, in which Seattle was founded when developers drove out the original inhabitants, was a poignant thread to the current state of homelessness. The “settlers” of Seattle didn’t come to new land; they were displacers, forcing indigenous people into reservations away from their ancestral homes and into far-flung and less desirable locations. Now, in clearing town for sterile luxury micro-loft condo buildings, the new invaders have left older inhabitants culturally disoriented at best, physically displaced, and homeless at worse. We can’t be uproarious about one without critically examining the other.
Second, this is one of the few (perhaps only?) times I’ve seen Seattle’s culture of faux community service specifically called out. The players mocked corporate culture for this — portraying a corporate “sleepover” where a team of employees tried to grasp homelessness by taking selfies purporting to show them sleeping outside, before complaining about it and leaving when it rained — but they could have gone further. It’s not only corporate America, but the governments, and the non-profits paid for with massive donations, that encourage this feel-good culture. I’m not going to name any names, but certain extra-large funding organizations, which like to be non-controversial and palatable to everyone — and which your workplace might encourage you to donate to through convenient payroll deduction — have dedicated programs for young professionals essentially pumping this faux involvement. Come tour an organization! Wear your matching t-shirts! Take lots of pictures! And after all that work, make sure to come together for free small plates and drinks and talks by celebrity chefs and feel good about yourself, because at the end of the day what’s more important in “giving back” than some hardcore networking?!!! Barf.
So while this performance wasn’t perfect, it’s refreshing to see arts grappling with Seattle’s problems in different ways. This generative performance, in a small, intimate, and contrasting space, opens discussions while maintaining some much-needed humor in the mix. It will be interesting to see if its future performances push the envelope further — and what, if any, motivations for change they can spark.
A final contrast proved the most distracting — and telling. Like clockwork, back in reality, the “new” Seattle strutted its stuff, as a large party of 10 or so young professionals came down to the basement, unselfconsciously bypassing table service, ordering drinks at the bar at full volume, chatting over the show at a large table within hearing range, and using lots of those neat buzzwords that cause so much cheery agreement but say nothing at all. It was a surreal portrait, the staged mockery of Seattle’s carefree and casual elitism, accented by the bouffons on stage gleefully throwing cash into the air, while the city’s real-life players did much the same.
Intentionally or not, it all felt very Seattle.
In SEAtu runs through 5/29 at the Ballast Bar (basement) of Capitol Cider, in the Pike/Pine area of Capitol Hill (818 E. Pike St.). Three different shows remain, each held twice: Coffee (Monday 3/25, at 6 & 7:30 pm); Salmon (Monday 4/29, at 6 & 7:30 pm); and Weed (Wednesday 5/29 & Thursday 5/30, both at 6 pm). Tickets $0-$25; more info & tickets here. Financial accessibility note: all tickets are on a name-your-price, sliding-scale basis; bus, light rail & trolley service ample in the area; parking is often scarce and street parking is metered every day but Sunday. Gender-neutral bathroom policy: restrooms are all gender-neutral, and lower level includes one single-stall and one multi-stall. Physical accessibility: Capitol Cider indicates the basement bar is wheelchair accessible by elevator; please ask host for directions upon arrival. Venue is 21+ only.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.