Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: LIZARD BOY at Seattle Rep

By Justin Huertas
Through May 2 2015
Seattle Repertory Theatre
155 Mercer Street
Seattle, WA 98109

(I should note up front that I can't make it through this review keeping to the convention of last-name references; the cast and director are theatre artists I know and whose work I care about greatly, and that last-name thing was feeling incredibly stilted as I wrote it, so it's first names from here on out.)

"Sit down and write about LIZARD BOY while it's fresh," I tell myself. And then, I think: LIZARD BOY will never be anything but fresh. It's handmade without being twee, authentic without being emo.

Set in what Marvel Comics famously called "the world outside your window" -- a Seattle of Dick's burgers but also of dragons emerging from Mount St. Helens, of Grindr hookups but also of super-powers -- the show is fantastic without ever being artificial, larger than life but also exactly the size and shape of real life.

Justin was commissioned by the Rep to keep diaries while playing cello on the SPRING AWAKENING National Tour, with the goal of having them turned into a play. The heart of the show evolved from a tour diary to a coming-out tale, then (as the author describes it) "a coming-out tale, but with super-powers." Through readings and workshops to its current fully-staged form, LIZARD BOY has grown bigger and richer and deeper without ever giving up an iota of its joyous hand-crafted spirit.

Trevor, the lizard boy of the title, was one of a half-dozen children trapped on a Tacoma playground during the battle during which the dragon was battled to its death. Its blood conferred super-powers on five of the six -- but left Trevor only with green, scaly skin. Often shunned but occasionally fetishized as exotic, Trevor has resigned himself to a life alone with his sketchpad, his music, and his dreams -- leaving his refuge only one night a year, for the MonsterFest that commemorates the night of the dragon, when revelers dress up and he can be taken for one boy in a lizard costume among thousands.

The search for his date of the previous year on Grindr yields an awkward contact, and an even more contact not-quite-hookup, with William A. Williams' Cary ("like Sissy Spacek?" "No, Cary Grant."), and through a web of crossed signals and horny sweetness, they approach, withdraw, and end up heading to the Crocodile to hear the singer Siren (Kirsten deLohr Helland), who Trevor recognizes on the cover of The Stranger as the girl of his dreams -- literally -- and the girl in his sketchbook. 

It's not giving away much of the plot to reveal that Siren, as well, was one of the Point Defiance playground kids, or that her powers and agenda move the plot to the awesome battle that ensues. In the readings and workshops, the script at this point simply said, "An awesome battle ensues" -- it is a testament to the superb staging instincts of director Brandon Ivie, and the sheer presence and power of the cast, that the battle covers the entire surface and every level of the stage, and no performers or musical instruments are harmed in the process.

Oh, did I fail to mention the musical instruments? From the moment you enter the theatre, the stage is pretty much covered in the objects -- "instruments" is much too narrow -- that will provide the score. Everyone is not only acting and singing but also playing -- Justin mainly on cello, Bill mainly on guitar, Kirsten on everything from melodica to piano to ukulele, with kazoos and random percussion objects being played by all (including Bill's beatboxing), and instruments smoothly being moved from stage to hand to hand. It's not a dance show, but the flow of the instruments is pure choreography.

I know I haven't mentioned the songs yet -- only because I can't say it all at once. Justin has crafted songs that lay the characters bare, move the plot to places it couldn't go in any other way, and heighten the emotional ante, all at once. They're great pop songs; they're great rock songs; they're great theatre songs. Justin's and Bill's terrific voices more than serve them well, and Kirsten's astounding instrument (as in many shows before) is a jaw-droppingly powerful wonder. The songs have one of the most important characteristics of great theatre songs: they are at once specific to the plot and universal to anyone in a situation anything like it. (Granted, without the exact complications of super-powers and dragon blood.)

In his career so far, Brandon Ivie has worked on some very traditional types of shows (A CHRISTMAS STORY, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN); but his passion (as reflected in the NEW VOICES concert series he has conceived and put together) has clearly been for newer-style, more "fringe-y" works, such as NEXT TO NORMAL and JASPER IN DEADLAND, the latter his New York directing debut that is about to be re-staged at the 5th Avenue. He has helped this cast of friends fully realize the work with love and skill.

It's always a little bit of a red flag when people say things like "you've never seen anything like it" or "it's unlike anything else" -- it always makes me want to ask, "Yes, but how good is it?!" So I won't go there, because LIZARD BOY doesn't need me to do so -- it's an awesome, real, pure adventure in the theatre.

But I will say this: one of the best and rarest experiences in the theatre is the feeling that, even through years of craft, weeks of rehearsal, precise direction, and performance after performance, you are watching a bunch of friends creating something new every time. Like Trevor, you're seeing the work of an awesome man but also a boy. In our being privileged to share in that act of creation, we remember the best child-like reason that we call them "play."

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