PORT TOWNSEND — “Tanstaafl*,” Key City Public Theatre’s latest out-of-the-box-theater offering, would be noteworthy if only for the sheer dramatic and comic firepower in its cast.
But the absurdist tragicomedy, conceived and directed by KCPT artistic director Denise Winter, is a lot more than just a gathering of a sort of Jefferson County thespian all-star team. Amid all its well-earned yuks, the piece asks some pointed, and unsettling, questions about humans, and the price humans put on happiness and contentment.
That Winter has collected a goodly number of the folks who’ve ever gotten a laugh or coaxed a tear on her stage during her 10-year tenure doesn’t hurt at all. In the case of “Tanstaafl*”, all those heavy hitters aren’t just performing the play — they were part of the creative process of cobbling it together.
So all of this came from the twisted minds, and bursting bags o’ stage tricks, of Hewitt Brooks and Steve Treacy and David Hillman and Blaine Lewis and Doug Taylor (among others), and of course Michelle Hensel and Lawrason Driscoll, who shaped all their characters and brought their own light and weight to the storytelling. “Tanstaafl* (*There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch)” is built of a framework similar to that of Bertolt Brecht (whose “Threepenny Opera” was the first play Winter directed at KPCT), a sometimes dizzying combination of absurd and even silly humor laced with somber, inescapable truth.
Little Dungston is a city on the ropes, reeling from decades of economic downturn and comfortably settled into an almost zombie-like haze of hopelessness. It’s a vaguely Pacific Northwest setting, only occasionally resembling Port Townsend (the real town’s paper bag plant is replaced by a papier mache factory), but definitely on its last legs.
The burgh is turned on its ear, however, when word comes that it is to be visited by a famous former resident, Crystal d’Gatezehnallen (Hensel, aces as always), who left 44 years earlier and married (and married, and married) her way to scandalous wealth. Dungston’s residents see dollar signs in the form of endowements and donations from their newly minted Favorite Daughter, and her former flame — shopkeeper Frederick Ash (the marvelous Driscoll) — is assigned to put the squeeze on.
“I’ve got to get the millionairess to cough up the millions,” he says as the giddy Dungstonites await her arrival.
It all seems very cut and dried, until Crystal — who Ash and others still remember as Chrissie from the block — arrives, oozing prosperity but festering with long-harbored hatred.
Yes, she’ll bail the town out; revitalize its business core and prop up every single citizen with an infusion of cash. But there’s a hefty price tag. In return for Crystal’s immense check, the Dungstonites are given a task that challenges everything they thought they knew about humanity and community and decency. Crystal and Ash, as it turns out, have way more backstory than anyone in Dungston could’ve imagined, way more than the sweet teenaged romance of everyone’s faded memories.
“I’m buying myself justice,” Crystal says, later adding, “The world turned me into a whore; I’ll turn the world into a brothel.”
The first act of the April 24 (opening night) performance was briskly paced, even at roughly an hour and a quarter. For the second act, though, Winter et al are forced to shift into first gear as the terrain gets steep, what with all the moralizing and rationalizing and negotiating. The laughs are less frequent, but the goings-on every bit as fascinating.
The set (conceived by Winter, Karen Anderson, Christa Holbrook, David Langley and Erin Lamb) is at once striking and simple — although it’s hard to imagine there’s a pallet left at any grocery outlet in Jefferson County. Costumes and sound effects — including a rollicking big-band soundtrack that has Crystal enter to Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” and the Dungstonites carrying out their task to a swinging version of “Volga Boatmen” — both make strong contributions.
It’s all very well done, right up to KCPT standards, and it packs the added bonus of getting to watch all those wonderful actor-clown-creators play with a new toy.
It’s theater that has its tongue in its cheek, its heart on its sleeve and its head in the game, all at the same time, which has the result of keeping the audience more than a little bit off-balance. That’s a good thing — to be either laughing or thinking, or often both at the same time.
“Tanstaafl*” is familiar people (well, for KCPT regulars, anyway) on unfamiliar ground, which makes for a highly unpredictable and entertaining evening’s theater.
(* “There’s No Such Thing As a Free Lunch”)
Who: Key City Public Theatre
What: Tragicomedy conceived and directed by Denise Winter
Where: Key City Playhouse, 419 Washington St., Port Townsend
When: Through May 10; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Information: 360-385-5278, keycitypublictheatre.org