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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and Jar the Floor

Not since Lilith Fair has Seattle been host to so much estrogen-fueled creativity, passion and power as the two shows currently playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Nightly, six actresses inhabiting over twenty characters touch upon a wide variety of feminist and family themes, all of which are surprisingly universal in their specificity.

The majority of the characters are brought to life by one woman, the fabulous Lily Tomlin, who is revisiting Seattle with her classic show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In 1984 The Search ...  received its first reading at The Rep, and over the years its original four hour length has been whittled down to a still impressive two hours and twenty minutes. Sixteen years have passed since Seattle's first glimpse of writer/director Jane Wagner's tour de force creation for Lily and its menagerie of characters, and amazingly (almost depressingly, in fact) the show still holds up thematically. Even though a new generation of theatre-goers has sprung up since The Search's inception, (a generation that probably has no idea who Sylvia Plath and G. Gordon Liddy are, not to mention the appeal of Bataka Bats and ERA rallies), the issues, problems, and for the most part character-types still have relevance and resonance today.

While not dated, the show itself in terms of style and structure is not as 'cutting edge' as it once was, partly due to the influence it and Lily have had on issue and character driven comedy. Watching Lily Tomlin perform, you realize how much impact she has had on today's comedy and comedic actors. Her gentle approach to topics which are by their nature edgy is strongly evident in performers ranging from Seinfeld to Tracey Ulman, and it is incredibly refreshing to see comedy at its intellectual best, which does not rely on profanity, anger, or cynicism.

The show focuses on the cosmically channel surfing bag lady Trudy as she tries to explain the human condition to her space alien chums. While Trudy is perhaps a touch too romanticized in today's world, with its larger and more visible strata of the mentally ill homeless, she still is a genial visionary of our flaws and foibles. The characters that she 'channels' lead remarkably interconnected lives, and most of them, from the jaded socialite Kate to the 'lost in life's whirlwind' Chrissy (who declares, "I always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific") still have unusually strong resonance in today's harried times. The majority of the second act is devoted to the evolution of Lyn from dedicated, idealistic, sometimes bisexual feminist to corporate raider and failed supermom; a theme that reiterates the feeling that the more things change ...  Some of the characters have not aged as gracefully, such as the angry teenage punk performance artist, Agnus Angst, and some of the jokes come across as one liners rather than observations, but overall this is still an incredibly insightful and humorous show.

Most of this is due to the incredible performance of Lily Tomlin, one of the most compelling and comfortable performers around. Watching her perform made me realize just how much she has been a part of my life; from Laugh-In (which debuted the year of my birth), through movies seen during childhood, (All of Me, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and 9 to 5) to wonderful guest-spots on some of my favorite shows (Murphy Brown and X-Files). She is the most gentle of comedians, a delight to watch, and a must-see if The Search ...  is found in your area.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe runs at the Seattle Rep through October 7th and is scheduled to run on Broadway at the Booth Theater November 16th through January 21st. For a peek at her schedule visit her wonderful website, www.lilytomlin.com.

Next door at Seattle Rep's intimate Leo K. Theatre another revisitation is taking place: Jar the Floor, which had its professional premiere at Seattle's Empty Space Theatre in 1991, has returned with its original director, Gil McGauley. The show focuses on four generations of African-American women and their struggle to balance love and familial duty amidst the usual familial stresses. Jar the Floor takes place at the 90th birthday party of MaDear (winningly and non-stereotypically played by Marilyn Coleman), which is being held at the upscale home of the granddaughter who is taking care of her, MayDee (an icily effective Sharon Washington). Jar the Floor illustrates how the sins, or more specifically the desires, of one generation affects the next, as well as how in our desire to not become our parents, we end up making a whole new set of mistakes for the next generation to overcome.

Like The Search ... , Jar the Floor is so specific in regards to the lives of these women that it becomes universal, transcending race or gender. After the show, my theater companion remarked that at first he thought he had seen the storyline in another play, but upon closer examination realized that it was more a case of having lived it. Playwright Cheryl L. West has managed to capture a slice of dysfunctional family feud that is by turns hysterical and heartbreaking. The actresses are wonderful of and by themselves, but together create an even stronger ensemble. Emily Yancy is sheer perfection as Lola, as the grandmother (though loath to admit it) who has been struggling all her life to get attention from her mother, and who's desire to provide a strong father figure (or four) for her daughter has had disastrous consequences. Terrilynn Towns as the youngest family member, Vennie, managed the difficult balance between rebellion (both misguided and justifiable) against and love for the various family members. As Vennie's Jewish companion (and possible lover), Raisa, Alexis Sari Chamow was both delightful and touching as the outsider who, by the nature of being so, is able to identify the struggles, as well as with the strugglers.

Jar the Floor (the title taken by MaDear's anthem to life - how we must 'jar the floor' to prove that we're alive and kicking) runs through October 28th. For more information on getting tickets for either show call the box office at 206-443-2222 or visit their website, www.seattlerep.org


Photo by: Annie Leibovitz.




- Jonathan Frank



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