Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Is there anything more dispiriting than a show that tries to be hip by using pop culture references and "alternative" techniques only to disguise a lack of both talent and imagination? All the more gratifying that "Handcuff Girl Saves The World" avoids all that, and never feels gimmicky or self-consciously esthetic. This original production, created by K.J. Sanchez and the ensemble, is smart, inventive and authentic. Using a much broader theatrical language than the familiar catalogue play usually allows, it examines the concept of a hero, what heroes both real and fantastic mean in our individual lives, where heroism is found and how they influence our own identities.
The Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) provides a vital component to the Seattle theatre scene, and to its hip, Capital Hill neighborhood. They're a group of dedicated professional theatre artists, primarily graduates of the University of Washington's Professional Actors Training Program, who have a particular interest in collaborative works of original material. In their first season they've done"Laura's Bush", a new play by Jane Martin, , the regional premiere of Adam Rapp's "Finer Noble Gases" and Steve Pearson's "Next Tuesday" and concluding with "Handcuff Girl...".
At a time when the major theatres in Seattle seem particularly conservative and cautious, a company with this sort of character and daring is especially welcome. The work is entertaining, disciplined, talented, energetic and articulate. Ms. Sanchez knows how to organize and edit material, and how to transform it into coherent action. It's the sort of alternative theatre that proves performance can be both spontaneous and substantive.
The central concept of this play is that a young woman superhero, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved gray sweatshirt, was born with handcuffs in the place of hands. Her "special power" is that she can attach one handcuff to some solid object, and the other to a bad guy. Asked what happens next, she replies, "Usually I get beaten up pretty badly." But what's a girl to do? You work with the superpowers you're given, whether it means a gift for cleaning, as Minty Clean (Marc Kenison), in his rubber gloves, underwear, cape and pumps or "Daydreamer" (Michael Place) with his pj's and little stuffed monkey, or Boogiegirl (Holly Patterson) who speaks in lyrics from Disco hits.
In the opening image we see Handcuff Girl, affectingly played by Elise Hunt, miming her conflict, being pulled between the physical world and its limitations on one (literal) hand and her noble intentions on the other. Frequently the production uses dance and movement in place of text, usually quite effectively. The players are children pretending to be superheroes, actors exploring the questions and methods of performance, adults trying to find and define heroism in the real world, and individuals revealing their own personal experiences and perspectives. But in the same way that children enact the real problems of their world through imaginative play, this production raises real questions about courage and identity and pop culture without ever leaving the enthusiasm of a particularly energetic recess.
The ensemble began the process with a lengthy questionaire, asking such things as "What is a hero?" "Who is your favorite Superhero?" "If you could have a super power, what would it be?" and so forth. From that, the text was built, but the achievement of Mr. Sanchez was in finding a coherent through-line to make the silly business and superficial amusement have real content. By the time, late in the production, that a player says, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure." it feels earned and convincing.
Matt Starritt built a sound design that combines contemporary pop music, dance music of the 1980's, and vintage rock and roll, especially by the Kinks. That also becomes another, often ironic, character. An excellent set by Jennifer Zeyl incorporates a grassy hillside, a corrugated wall that becomes transparent, and open playing space (including the aisles) that makes the small stage feel remarkably expansive.
"Handcuff Girl Saves the World" is a refreshing, satisfying and thoughtful entertainment. At a time when too many theatres seem to believe that economic safety means doing the familiar in predictable ways, this company promises to explore theatrical possibility with intelligence, craft, imagination and style. What a tasty addition to the theatrical menu.