In the Show ‘About Progress’, Characters Clash About Moving On
A new play, originally set to perform in a to-be-demolished house, created its own instead. While the story feels adrift, the novelty is worth a visit. It runs through September 28.
“Does this spark joy?,” her brother asks, holding aloft a neck traction device plucked from a pile of debris and trash on the living room floor. But the whole scene is less Marie Kondo “before” picture and more squatter’s parlor.
Seven couches are scattered about, as if guests by the dozen are regularly expected, despite the filth. (Indeed, the unlikely company — in the form of audience members — does arrive, and files in to sit on most of them.) In this house, everything is kept, but nothing is cared for. It all has a very temporary feel to it, even as the filth looked like it’d been building for months, even years.
And temporary is exactly the point.
This Show Is About Progress, a new play by Carol Louise Thompson and directed by Julia Griffin, centers on a sister and brother coming to terms with the changing neighborhoods around them. The brother (played by James Schilling) wants to sell the home their mother left him, which the sister also “temporarily” lives in. The sister (who Thompson plays) is lost in herself, trying to figure out what the eventual sale means for her.
Walking into the house, the scattered feeling is immediately overwhelming, and not just from the stuff. Thompson is curled up at the base of an upended couch, having some sort of an emotional attack. Is she mentally ill, troubled, or exaggerated? It’s hard to tell. It gets even trickier when another part of her (played by Monika Elmont) comes in — called “Farwalker” to Thompson’s “Longsitter”. The two characters — two takes on the same person — hash it out.
For me, it all gets a little too convoluted. And for all the time we spend in the sister’s head — the show finishes at just under two hours, with no intermission — it’s hard to hold onto a connection with either of them.
Thompson wrote this play stemming from a scene of a desert in a living room, representing the inertia of depression up against the force of progress. Against that backdrop, some of the characters’ actions start to make sense; chiefly, Longsitter’s isolation and removal from everyone else’s reality, and Farwalker’s disruptive bursts into the scene.
Plans changed when the venue did. The play was rehearsed and scheduled to perform in an actual house slated for demolition; Thompson recounts having the developer’s permission to perform there, then being locked out of on-site rehearsal, without notice or explanation, just before its originally scheduled opening. The show’s progress was halted, as demolition’s progress marched on.
A year or so later, it found its way to Base, a wide-open dance space in the Equinox Studios complex among Georgetown’s still-industrial parts. Despite the artificial construct, the set (by Robin Macartney) is wonderfully conceived and built. The house looks like a house. The inside hints of post-apocalyptic.
Despite the exquisite set, the loss of its first home still feels personal to the show, to its detriment. Somewhere along the line, as it moved from a real house to a conceived one, the play seems to stretch itself artificially, grasping at the concept of site-specific rather than letting the house speak for itself, as it could have in its convincing new setting. Instead, the play weaves a narrative about staging and selling the house that really doesn’t make sense — no one would try to stage a house imminently, in this condition — into against a headspace narrative that isn’t supposed to.
But the former narrative keeps fighting itself to make sense anyway, and that’s the real burden of the play. In making the show about the house, it has recentered the action and given the brother, whose character is otherwise undeveloped, too great of control. He makes all the impactful decisions, but controls none of the chaos that’s taken over the common areas of his house.
And the desert, the metaphor for the sister’s battle, fades out, too. There is some of the (much-touted) sand, but it’s minimal. Rather than a desert, the room looks like filth — abandoned, years-accumulated — and despair. And while that despair characterizes Longsitter when we meet her, there’s nothing indicating that her brother, the home’s owner, is in the same state. That he would let the main room of the house fall into that state, while ostensibly trying to maintain some level of control, is incomprehensible. And it’s in large part that disconnect that leaves their situation hard to care about. They both let it get to a state of unlivable. The house, above all, feels unloved. How much attachment could they really have to it?
So are we dealing with Longsitter/Farwalker’s desert, or a literal home in a changing landscape? The two ideas are an intriguing puzzle, but the pieces don’t come together on stage.
Nor do the pieces as applied to Seattle’s south end, for the play pays no mind to racial disparities in the impact of dislocation and gentrification. Insert an “all lives matter” debate here if you must, but the people being displaced in Seattle right now are primarily people of color, and Asian, Pacific Islander, and Black people in particular. Frustratingly, the “progress” here appears to pay them no mind; and, ironically, the agent of change — the real estate agent encouraging sale to a developer — is the show’s only Black actor. (The same actor, drag artist and activist Adé Cônnére, also appears as the brother’s casual hookup and couch-surfer, another surfacey role devoid of apparent connection to the neighborhood.)
In all of the revamping, this feels like a play which has lost itself. It’s become more about an artist’s fixation on a specific house, perhaps, than the city’s actual geographic, historic, and cultural landscapes. We could use more of the latter.
Divorced from its clouded storyline and viewed only as something to experience, however, Progress is an interesting watch. The set itself — in which audience members sit on couches in this wrecked house — is something of a spectacle. Macartney has worked miracles here; I’ve been to Base many times and never envisioned something like this.
Also enjoyable was the physicality of it. One of the seven couches was upended on its short side, serving as something of a big daunting ramp, which two of the actors scaled mightily.
Local theatre has a drought right now of the “new and different”. The Show About Progress doesn’t share that problem; it wholly transforms its space, and takes a novel approach to a hard-felt issue. But as a site-specific piece, it may have let the change of place unduly dictate the narrative; and whether from that or other factors, its cloudiness clouds the impact, too.
This Show Is About Progress runs through 9/28 at Base: Experimental Arts + Space, inside the Equinox Studios complex in Georgetown. Tickets $5-$50 (sliding scale for all), available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; two gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms are located down the hall past Yaw, nearest the blacksmith studio. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible through a side entrance toward the northwest side of the building (look for the popsicle stick-style house and sideways motorcycle); however, studio complex has some uneven floors throughout. Read NWT’s previous write-up about Base here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.