Friday, January 31, 2014

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

The many faces of Terri Weagant. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions.

Harlequin Productions brings a modern classic to Olympia in the form of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner. This amazing one-person play was written specifically for and performed by the great Lilly Tomlin, on both stage and screen. It is so challenging and so indelibly associated with Tomlin that few other actors have the talent or the chutzpah to tackle the role. Make that roles, plural. She plays at least 17 separate characters, changing so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up. There’s no sense in even trying; just roll with it.

Terri Weagant, an award-winning actor, producing director, writer and dialect coach in Seattle is up to the task. That last bit — dialect coach — is crucial because Weagant changes voices along with posture, movement and facial tics with every change of character. The transformations are breathtaking.

The main character, who guides the audience — along with her unseen “space chum” aliens — through the myriad stories and lives depicted in the play, is a bag lady named Trudy. Trudy is bent over with what appears to be severe osteoporosis, and her face is twisted as if she has suffered a stroke. She comes on stage and informs the audience that she is there to meet her space chums on the corner of Walk/Don’t Walk around lunchtime. The aliens are late. She says they’re always late. Maybe it’s because “around lunchtime” may be open to interpretation.

Thus the quirky humor that permeates the entire show is established from the get-go.

While showing her chums around our world, Trudy comments with philosophical adroitness, absurd humor and down-to-earth wisdom about everything from feminism, love and marriage, to the difference between art and not art, which she comes back to repeatedly as a running joke by holding up an unseen can of Campbell’s tomato soup in one hand and a reproduction of an Andy Warhol painting of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup in her other hand, saying “This is soup; this is art.” It’s like Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe.

Along the way we question Trudy’s sanity, and perhaps our own. She knows she is considered insane, and she has had the shock treatments to prove it. What more proof is needed than the space aliens monitoring her brain? But “What is reality anyway?” she asks. “Nothin' but a collective hunch. In my view, it's absurdity dressed up in a three-piece business suit.”

Weagant’s acting is astounding, and the lighting effects by Amy Chisman and sound by Jesse McNeece are particularly helpful in keying the many character changes. Congratulations to Weagant, director Keira McDonald and the Harlequin staff for a moving, intelligent and funny show.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Feb. 15
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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