New Play Festival keeps Seattle Rep’s link to storied new work past alive

This past weekend was the finale of a month long series of readings of new plays at Seattle Rep.

For a theatre that used to play quite a visible role in the development of new work on the national stage, the Rep has not been as active in the field lately. This is perhaps understandable, as the economic, cultural, and institutional forces arrayed against the production of compelling new work in the American theatre (especially regionally) become more daunting by the day.

As a simple testament to the power of the current landscape, the Rep’s 50th anniversary season is extremely conservative and inert, featuring trucked in franchise properties and old chestnuts (long since roasted to blackened bits) like AMERICAN BUFFALO.

So putting on a highly visible new play festival feels a bit like getting the band back together to show that this seasoned player still has chops – not unlike the vibe next door at Experience Music Project, where the sonic wash of a Nirvana retrospective was rattling windows.

Whether it was a flash in the pan or a new annual event that will build (that’s the hope), there was an undeniable rush of excitement and interest from the city around this year’s festival, and all events sold out.

On Saturday and Sunday, the large Seattle Rep facility was buzzing. In addition to the readings, there were also two full productions running at the same time, and hundreds of Seattle-ites milled in the lobby sipping tea and coffee in between events, watching an impenetrable February fog hang outside.

The two I saw:

THE WEATHERMAN PROJECT by Elizabeth Heffron and Kit Bakke takes us back to the heady days of the SDS and student revolution. Has there ever been an era as important and fertile as the 60’s for big, epic theatre? But just because the target is large does not mean it is easy to strike. There are moments here, but mostly the personal stories do not connect to the larger history playing out, and its continuing hold on us today. Snippets of projected images, packed with real drama, effortlessly upstage the proceedings. But the subject material is solid gold, and there is plenty of time to sharpen this work into something more than nostalgia and free-living lifestyle quips.

A GREAT WILDERNESS by Samuel D. Hunter focuses on a wayward older man, Walt, in remote Idaho whose career is bringing in gay youth to help them “pray away” their sinful leanings in a wilderness setting. As the play begins, the latest recruit has gone missing in darkest woods, and his mother appears to figure out what’s happening. As we learn more about why this mission resonates for Walt, there is some good drama. There is definitely something here.

One odd off note: All the characters in WILDERNESS (most of whom are from and live in northern Idaho) are deeply alienated from the natural world. Wilderness and the woods for them is mainly a source of cold, hot, dust, bugs, danger, etc.

While these Woody Allen-esque cracks about nutty nature may get a rise from urbanites, they seem to strip their characters of any real rooting in the western landscape. They do not ring true for Pacific Northwesterners living in wild areas, for whom the natural setting is usually deeply important and defining.

All in all, a promising revival from Seattle Rep that should continue each winter.