Since their arrival in Seattle in 2009, The Satori Group has been engaged in producing advanced, high-level progressive theater with a dedicated group of actors working in a laboratory environment to simultaneously develop both the material and the performance. Their current production of “Fabulous Prizes” by Seattle playwright Neil Ferron is an excellent example of both the height of their ambition and the difficulty of achieving esoteric art that also connects with a common audience.
Mr. Ferron is indeed fortunate to have these actors performing his play, and to have the confident and assured direction of Caitlin Sullivan. The greatest success here is that this production largely subsumes its high aesthetic theory into individual performances that feel fully committed and genuine, and that make the script appear less strained and overly contrived than I think it is. The performance is entertaining and intriguing, the characters human and engaged in one another at the same time that the play is consciously alienated from any reality not a part of its artifice.
We are in a basement room inhabited by Julius, a stiff and constrained man who may have once owned a gourmet restaurant named in honor of his beloved Miranda. That restaurant may or may not be annihilated by a review from a prestigious food critic that they are anxiously awaiting in the mail. Julius shares the room with his son, Arthur, who at times becomes Miranda (complete with evening gown) in ways that involve affection, passion, lust and brutality. Neither man apparently ever leaves this “Dumbwaiter” meets “No Exit” enclosure. Walter, who seems to know both of them better than anyone else in the world, is their only visitor from the outside, their only connection with another part of the building. His view on the world seems largely limited to a glamorous woman, Sally, whom he watches as she comes and goes from a restaurant across the street, and who will be captured and held bound and gagged in the closet during most of the action.
I say action rather than story because this play studiously avoids any sort of traditional narrative, any even grudging acceptance that reality is anything more than subjective perception, that individual personality any more actual than physical presentation and reception, or that motivations represent anything more consequential than the intersections of power, need and ambition. All of these aesthetic principles connect in the theories of post-modernism, and that is where this play lives and breathes. Mr. Ferron has undertaken a most difficult dramatic ambition, and while it may not entirely succeed in transcending its theory to become something wholly original, it is admirably constructed by a writer of sobering intelligence and serious intention.
He could not have asked for a better presentation of his work. The three central actors accomplish the great challenge of making these highly stylized and artificial characters recognizable and sympathetic while never relinquishing the conceit that we are watching actors in performance. Nathan Sorseth, as the father and chef Julius, was particularly strong in maintaining his focus and authority. That was especially difficult (and critical) in a character who most easily could have become insubstantial or irrelevant. As the captive son, Arthur, Quinn Franzen maintained a great deal of tension between his father, and between his father and that man's inner reality. When he was playing Miranda he avoided any sense of silliness or farce and instead achieved genuine persona, again within the conceit of an artificial theatrical performance.
When Walter, their friend and neighbor first appears in his heavy winter coat and dog-eared hat, it is clear that this is a man who requires insulation from the world, and from life itself. Anthony Darnell does a fine job of injecting this man into the contained existence of Julius and Arthur, and also bringing his own obsession, the woman Sally, into their world. When we finally hear Sally, untied and ungagged near the end the play, she is largely incomprehensible and utterly irrelevant. Adrienne Clark did all she could with the character, but it was (in my opinion) a mistake in the script to even have her included, and if she was there only for the final speech, it needed to be much more significant, much more of a payoff.
“Fabulous Prizes” is a serious piece of contemporary theater with a fair amount of entertainment in the performance. Unfortunately, I think too many of the laughs were at the play, rather than with the play. Those were times when the conception of the action was just too apparent, and when the effort to be extreme was too great. I think it's curious that a play striving to be so modern feels so constrained in Twentieth century theory. Let me be clear that my reservations about “Fabulous Prizes” are all concerned with the play, and not at all with the production The Satori Group gave it. These artists are doing important work in Seattle, and they are helping to keep adventurous, experimental, independent theater alive.
PICTURED ABOVE: Nathan Sorseth, Anthony Darnell and Quin Franzen
PHOTO BY: Monty Taylor