Seattle fringe theater often embarks on manic, jokey, and emotionally insincere digressions, in the 'êVampire Pirate Wastrels vs. the Zombie Arthropods'ê vein. One would expect a production staged in a Capitol Hill basement, about a 1950s Catholic naif seduced by the roller derby, to fling us toward the meaty end of the camp spectrum. Indeed, the conundra presented to us in Rolin Jones'ê The Jammer are dubious and broad: Which would you prefer, skate-rink stardom or a day job at the cardboard factory? The naughty girl straight from the asylum or the homely shrew? Terri Weagant'ês staging of the play at Balagan Theatre offers up these and related questions for our consideration.
Yet despite its faÃ§ade of foolery, Jones'ê 2004 drama has a curious charm; it offers both a send-up and a celebration of the earnest Americana of Whitman, Wilder, and Odets. It'ês well crafted: A few minor subplots add color but don'êt much interfere with the narrative through-line. Our hero has a bumbling charm that sees him through the challenges, emotional and medical, with which his colleagues and confidants imbue his quest. His letters contain some choice sentiment: the next time you'êre set to leave town on a touring gig, you might find yourself inspired to write your grocer. The play is, finally, a comical look at little ambitions, and it is backed by a surprising reserve of wistful kindness.
Balagan Theatre'ês lighting instruments are bolted directly into the overhead slab; a flock of be-castered metal folding chairs make up the principal scenic element, and cardboard cut-outs supplement the cast. The familiar smell of particle board dust and recently painted plywood, the open tech booth, the hollow thump of the risers and squeak of recycled movie seats are familiar to anybody who works in or visits Seattle'ês theatrical underworld. The acting is uneven, the pace is frenetic, the choreography is under-rehearsed. Yet a committed, emotional performance by Christie Nelson as the bad girl, some nice supporting work by Ray Tagavilla and Michael Blum, and general high spirits all round make up for the constraints of poverty and haste.
Are you of an age to remember the original roller derby, or do you harbor nostalgic memories of disco balls and acne? The next few weeks offer a unique opportunity for a roller-skate triple-header. The Jammer plays Thursday through Sunday evenings through April 3 at Balagan Theatre, the Rat City Rollergirls will grace Key Arena in a rare appearance on April 10, and Skate King in Bellevue offers public sessions every week. Go ahead: stride the track.