Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

A Theatre Under the Influence
Union Garage, 1418 10th Ave, 720-1942,
Thurs-Sat at 8, through June 3. $12.

"There is a light in the human spirit," Craig Bradshaw remarks in his director's notes for Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. And the radical spirit gleams through the lines of this Caryl Churchill play, first produced in 1976. An interestingly patterned pastiche of short and long scenes depicting Reformation-era England, the work is about a time not unlike the present, in which the poor and minorities struggle to liberate themselves from the intractable social structures instigated and controlled by the rich.

Yet this production is for folks interested in pure ideas--about the birth of the notion that all people have rights, or about the paradox of the Church, which has kept people confounded and fearful while at the same time giving them strength. Those seeking dramatic tension or a straightforward psychological conflict between characters best steer clear. In fact, despite being filled with interesting themes, the production is at times difficult to hang with, perhaps because of the play's density and length, or perhaps because the dialogue isn't delivered as rapid-fire and overlapped as it might be.

Some of the actors' deliveries feel too labored and deliberate, though the cast of six also seems fully immersed in the play and the broad world it creates; director Bradshaw helps make clear the razor-sharp divide between the smarmy privileged clergy of the mid 1600s and their impoverished followers. A terrific, rough-hewn set echoes the actors' sober demeanors, and interesting dialogue evokes mankind's painful grappling with God and sin, but long periods of lagging sameness during this nearly two-hour production make it a shame that substantial script cuts weren't made.

The strongest part of the play, however, is a long creepy final scene depicting a group of radical, religious/hedonistic church dissenters; also terrifically realized is a scene in which actors Sarena Williams and Corey Quigley portray servants who find a hand mirror in their landowner's house and discuss intensely, rapidly, and metaphorically the right to see oneself. The stripped-down effect of this scene best illuminates Churchill's nonlinear, highly political playwriting. STACEY LEVINE


Hyperion Theatre Thurs-Sat at 8, Sun at 7, through June 4. $12.50.

For those willing to wait for it, there's a great comedic sequence deep in the second act of S. P. Miskowski's Watusi. After a series of less-than-satisfying dramatic pairings, the precocity and self-awareness of 13-year-old protagonist Marty are unexpectedly matched by her father's alcoholic self-destruction. In a string of scenes separated by quick fades, a martini-sipping Marty works her way through a gamut of conspiratorial roles: confessor, enabler, companion, and finally, protector. Not only are the scenes sharp and well-written, they evoke Marty's desperation to connect with someone--anyone--in her family. Actress Jolayne Berg's furious energy playing Marty reaps huge benefits in those scenes: Her reflexive, half-assed politeness and hyper-ironic line readings wring laughs from every line. It's a great payoff for a very fine performance.

Miskowski shows admirable restraint in keeping her play focused on family dynamics. Set in 1965 Decatur, Georgia, Watusi deals with wide cultural issues in the peripheral manner they were probably experienced by most families. The most interesting, delicate portions of the play concern family members' attempts to feel connected to the wider world, and how those attempts are almost always subsumed into more immediate, personal conceptions of happiness. What separates the two generations is that the children also have to process conflicting messages from popular culture: sexually charged but moralistic movies, oddly reassuring TV fantasies, and music and dance that cuts across racial boundaries. Marty's fascination with a Lady Bird Johnson Southern-states camping trip acts as a note-perfect narrative framework: an inarticulate but touching search for personal recognition.

Miskowski fails to bring similar levels of insight into the other characters' story arcs. Marty's family members are less characters than Southern clichés: the mother concerned about her social standing, the father exhausted by his limited job, the dimwitted sister attracted to religion. Marty is a type, too: the wise child. But unlike the others, Marty acts from her quirks. When older sister Suzi tells Marty she returned home solely to check up on her, it's not only a cliché, but one that has little to do with anything interesting that the audience knows about Suzi. By failing to replicate anything like the understanding she invests in her lead, Miskowski has trapped a memorable character in a less-than-memorable play. TOM SPURGEON

Hokum's Ragtime Nickelodeon Revue

Hokum Hall, 7904 35th Ave SW, 937-3613,
Fri-Sat at 8, open-ended engagement.$12 general, $10 student/senior.

I've always believed in the existence of a state of grace that transcends irony, but I never expected to stumble onto its exact physical location. That's just what happened when I trekked out to the wilds of West Seattle to watch. The charming Hokum Hall, built in the '30s, has housed Hokum's vaudeville revivals since 1993. At least a hundred people were in the audience when Hokum bounced onto the stage to begin the evening's homage to "the era when a dance cost a dime and five cents bought you pictures that move."

Andy Crow and Dan Grinstead pounded out ragtime ditties on pianos and an astounding instrument called the WurliTzer Theater Pipe Organ. Capable of replicating the sounds of many instruments, the mighty relic also mimicked clattering hoof beats, twittering birds, and other sound effects that drew the audience into the action of the strangely affecting silent films that Hokum projected during the revue.

Hokum also played a muffler and peddled the ridiculous "piano ala cart," which can only be described as a piano on a bicycle. Lori Eger, an Edwardian beauty, sang a few melodramatic but mildly naughty tunes in a lilting soprano. Though their performances were lovely, a little pie-in-the-face slapstick might have lightened the rather serious air of the evening, for Hokum unfortunately scatters dry educational exposition throughout. I didn't appreciate a tour guide constantly reminding me that I was enjoying a mere simulation of vaudeville.

But despite that, the evening was enormously moving. During the second act, the audience joined Jim Cook and his ukulele for several songs. I looked over at my friend in confusion. We were the only people in the hall who didn't know the words. Suddenly it seemed terribly important to sing along with this room full of strangers. I felt somehow like we were fireflies raising our tiny lights into a shimmering chorus, sharing our voices before descending into the inevitable darkness. But as Professor Hokum W. Jeebs and company remind us: Through the sorcery of celluloid and shared songs, our "flickers" may long outlast us. TAMARA PARIS