Kabuki holding action: Absurd Reality stages the prizewinning 'Lonely Planet'

Seattle playwright Steven Dietz's "Lonely Planet" is comedy-drama about fear and friendship in the era of AIDS that is so well crafted it snagged the Pen USA West Award in Drama. The play is the story of Jody, who refuses to leave the confines of the map store he runs, and his friend Carl, who hauls an ever-growing menagerie of chairs into the shop to remind Jody of the outside world.

Such an intimate play, set within the claustrophobic walls of a modern-day map store, doesn't at first glance appear compatible with what Absurd Reality Productions bills as "a fresh and inventive approach" incorporating Kabuki, swashbuckling swordplay and contemporary dance. In fact, the combination sounds like an unholy trinity primed for disaster. Surprisingly, under the direction of Nathan Hicks, it isn't.

Hicks' approach worked in part because the nicely choreographed swordfight is already written into the script - a humorous scene in which Jody and Carl enthusiastically wield rolled maps while spouting Elizabethan English, both temporarily escaping the grim reality of friends dropping like flies from AIDS. The contemporary dance angle, which could have been jarring, instead seemed to be missing in action. If there were elements of contemporary dance in the production, they were too subtle for me to detect.

The infusion of Kabuki was light on its feet, a gentle homage to the ancient art. Kabuki is a form of popular drama spawned by the Noh school of theater in Japan in the early 1600s. Typically, Kabuki involves elaborately costumed performers and relies on stylized movements, dances and songs.

Traditionally, Kabuki actors will hold a picturesque pose to establish their character or make a powerful impression at a climactic moment, a technique the actors in Absurd Reality's production employed minimally. Although those held moments didn't spoil the emotional realism of the piece, they dragged for my companion, who doesn't have a theater background and simply thought the actors were slow to pick up their cues. And if Hicks was using this tactic at the top of the play, his choice went miserably awry on preview night. For several minutes, a spotlight illuminated a wooden chair center stage with nothing happening except Jody sitting on the floor against the wall near the water cooler sipping from a cup. The audience grew restless, and my companion and I began to wonder if the stage light switches weren't working.

Kabuki stagehands are dressed in black and considered invisible, making all scenery changes with the curtains open. For "Lonely Planet," there are no curtains. The stagehands, draped from head to toe in shimmering, burqa-like garments that shroud even their faces, carry props on and off the stage.

Another Kabuki convention is the hero's exaggerated makeup. In this case Carl, who is fighting to get Jody to reengage with life, has a punk pompadour whose black upsweep is dramatically accentuated by extremely pale skin.

Like a traditional Kabuki play, "Lonely Planet" is also an ideal vehicle to showcase the actors' talents. Besides directing, Hicks plays Jody, bringing the angry denial behind his carefully armored solitude and the joy of transcending his terror to nuanced life. As Carl, Brandon Ryan is an acting force to be reckoned with. He has an acrobatic agility of voice and mannerisms - whether telling an amusing story about several different characters or revealing his fears - firmly rooted in equally fluent emotions.

While the slow-going Kabuki influence may stretch some theatergoers' tolerance, the talent of Hicks and Ryan should keep most audience members absorbed through the heart-rending conclusion.

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Absurd Reality Productions' 'Lonely Planet' continues at the Northwest Actors Studio, 1100 E. Pike St. on Capitol Hill, through Nov. 19. Price: $12. Tickets: 253-241-4407. Information: www.absurdreality.com

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Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and can be reached c/o editor@capitolhilltimes.com.[[In-content Ad]]