By the show’s end, the latest adventure from The Williams Project had all the makings of a disaster. Its difference may be its salvation.
If you know a line, just sing it out!
None of us at the table could figure out why pages upon pages of the script were scattered around on the audience tables woven throughout the set. Their real purpose was never explained. But with the chaos on stage at the end, that invented explanation — throw out a line if the spirit moves you! — seemed just as likely as any other.
If you think this is a pan — which, by almost any usual indicator it probably should be — you might be surprised.
The Williams Project’s production of The Time of Your Life — the second of the company’s two shows on rotation now through this weekend — is a series of surprises in itself. The contemporaneously-set 1939 play, by William Saroyan, recalls San Francisco’s Embarcadero area, before it boasted terraced office towers and hotels and chic cocktail bars. Indeed, a bar denizen notes that a couple of out-of-place, well-dressed tourists wandering in must have overshot the fanciful downtown bars by mistake. (The Williams Project version envisions the Seattle staging’s site instead, which is far from a wharf but otherwise works, thematically.)
The central characters are Nick, who owns the bar; Kitty Duval, a lady of the night who claims a coast-to-coast career pedigree in burlesque; Joe, something of a weasel, with too much money and too little imagination or purpose; and Tom, his errand boy, who seemingly fetches sundry items for Joe’s entertainment. The numerous other characters in and out include Dudley, a man in dire search of a gal; Elsie, his longed-for gal; a cop; a drunk man who looks like Kit Carson; a man and a woman clearly visiting from somewhere else; and a man referred to only by his ethnicity (“Arab” in the script, “African” in this version), glued to the end of the bar who speaks only rarely.
The Time of Your Life is one of two so-called “Bar Plays” The Williams Project is staging in repertory on the same set and, incredibly, with the same cast. The other is Small Craft Warnings, which I didn’t particularly warm to, largely because the play and its subject bore little resemblance to one another; homey coastal dive bar feel it was not. (See my review here.)
This one, in contrast, may have gone so far to the other side — that is, given up completely on the notion of literalism — that it shat gold.
It starts off straightforward enough, and with casting that’s brilliant: Dedra D. Woods taking center stage as Kitty Duval; Lamar Legend slinging dram and unfazed attitude as the bar owner; Grant Chapman as Joe, giving whiny self-absorbed shade from the center of the bar. The peripheral casting — including Kemiyondo Coutinho, Madeleine Lambert, Lee LeBreton, Richard Prioleau, and Max Rosenak — likewise made sense; their interactions were engrossing.
And then at some point — imperceptibly at first, then stark beginning when a hotel room “set” is brought out, staged with dolls in a shoe box — it all just started going to hell.
A full act is carried out in the shoe box, its narrator (and makeshift puppeteer) growing so frantic in oratory speed that I stopped trying to follow the sequence. The cast starts changing costumes and roles. For some reason, we’re dragged outside to watch as a cop has an existential crisis, while another group stays inside. And all back together, the action descends into a game of hot potato, flinging roles around, costume changes going on in the middle of the floor and the middle of lines. Whereas the full cast began the show off-book, at least half of the actors had scripts in their hands by act four, and all of them by act five. No one seems to think that will change by the closing performance.
The Time of Your Life, in this form at least, is a study in layer after layer of disarray introduced, where the lines of purposeful chaos blur into just plain chaos. Following the show, an audience member and an actor would both observe that the descent could be the character Joe’s increasingly futile attempts to track his surroundings through a battle with schizophrenia — an interesting take on the original, but an apt one for the staging that unfolded here.
I don’t know that it does much justice to the original environs. But it certainly does deconstruct them.
I’ve occasionally bemoaned the lack in Seattle of indescribable art like that associated, most frequently, with small stages in New York. It’s not what I want to see often, but sometimes boldness in strangeness is a uniquely satisfying art form all its own. The most recent example that comes to mind is when I found myself in the middle of an impromptu group hug on stage — none of which are usual things to which I find myself drawn — during Queen Shmooquan’s show at Base in June of last year.
But there’s something to be said for experiencing positive, weird shit together. I think at Time of Your Life that night, just before declaring What in the actual fuck just happened?, we experienced positive, weird shit together.
Whatever it is, it’s a trip.
The Time of Your Life runs through 8/25 at Washington Hall in the Central District/First Hill area. Tickets $0-$50 (sliding scale, pay-what-you-can available to all for every show). Tickets available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.