Prostitutes in Amsterdam, meth in Appalachia

Seattle's audacious new theater company Azeotrope gives voice to people living on the edge.
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Libby Barnard and Tim Gouran in "25 Saints"

Seattle's audacious new theater company Azeotrope gives voice to people living on the edge.

What makes people want to attend live theater? Sure, it’s an art that dates back to the origins of human culture, but why put up with the hassle when it’s become so easy to find entertainment from the comforts of home? Even the allure of films is no longer enough to guarantee the future of movie theaters.

But Azeotrope has a way of making you remember what’s so unique about theater in the first place. No amount of digitalized special effects can trump the raw, gritty emotional power or the gripping depictions of desperate characters who populate Azeotrope’s latest project.

Over the next month the company is presenting a double bill of plays in rotating repertory at the Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, a tiny black box theater located downstairs at ACT. Both plays are less than a decade old: Adam Rapp’s “Red Light Winter” (2005), which was a Pulitzer finalist, and the Seattle premiere of the recent “25 Saints” by Joshua Rollins (who will be on hand for post-play discussions on Nov. 2 and 3).

“When I when I first read ‘Red Light Winter,’ it just kicked me in the balls,” says Richard Nguyen Sloniker, an actor, writer, teacher and co-founder of Azeotrope. “It hit me in a way I couldn’t quite grasp, and I had to try to parse out why.”

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Richard Nguyen Sloniker in "Red Light Winter." Photo: Sebastien Scanduzzi

Rapp’s scenario is a bleak examination of the need for intimacy. It explores the consequences of a night two former college friends spend with a beautiful young prostitute in Amsterdam. “Sure, it’s not a very cheery play,” Sloniker explains, “but I identified with these lost, broken, human characters. A good play doesn’t necessarily have to give you a catharsis.”

“My personal curiosity about biology is what draws me to theater,” says stage director and fellow co-founder Desdemona Chiang, who received degrees in both disciplines. Chiang shares Azeotrope’s artistic leadership with Sloniker and has directed all of its productions. “I like to do plays about guts – in both the metaphorical and the literal sense. Theater, like biology, is a study of life. The Greeks knew this in their devotion to theater. You only live so many years on this planet, and life passes like a flash in the pan. There’s something very exciting when the stakes bring you back to what’s essential.”

Sloniker and Chiang first met as graduate students in the University of Washington’s drama program. Their mentor Jon Jory, a celebrated figure in the regional theater movement and creator of Louisville's Humana Festival, encouraged members of their class to form a company. “From Jory we learned that art is for the audience to decipher,” Sloniker says, “and that what we do in the theater is a craft, something we pour hours of sweat and work into.”

“Red Light” is the play he and Chiang chose to launch Azeotrope when they started the company in 2010. Impressed by the production, ACT’s artistic director Kurt Beattie invited Azeotrope to participate in ACT’s Central Heating lab initiative to develop a new work.

The result was one of the most searing fringe productions in recent years: the Seattle premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" — a drama about a young Nuyorican facing murder charges in the Riker’s Island prison. Last year, the production took home four Gregory Awards, including Outstanding Production and Outstanding Director (for Chiang).

This past summer Azeotrope performed the oddly touching two-character play “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph at Washington Ensemble Theatre’s Capitol Hill space. “Gruesome” is the nonlinear story of a boy and girl both prone to injuring themselves. As they grow up and encounter each other over the decades, their efforts to connect in a more lasting way falter painfully. It all makes for a play that’s more haunting and effective, in my view, than Joseph’s ambitious “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which WET recently staged.

For their return to ACT, Azeotrope decided to tackle a new level of challenge by presenting two plays in rotating repertory, using the same actors and production team for each. “It’s an incredible way to flex so many different muscles. Not just for the actors, but for the designers, the tech crew and for me as the director,” explains Chiang. 

And, she might add, for any audience that wants a chance to see the company's diverse range.

The double bill opened last week in ACT’s most intimate theater space, following an intensive five-week rehearsal period. Both works are driven by what Chiang calls a “masculine energy, pushing ahead from one point to the next.” But in contrast to the meditative moments in “Red Light Winter,” “25 Saints” pulses with a brutal, relentless momentum, its country dystopia juxtaposed with "Red Light's" alienated contemporary urban setting. Rollins has written an action play about rural Appalachian meth cookers who face off against the sadistically corrupt local sheriff and his cronies.

Aside from Intiman’s past two summer festivals, this repertory presentation of actors juggling roles in different plays running side by side is a rarity in Seattle’s theater scene. What’s changed since Azeotrope originally performed “Red Light Winter”? “Because the cast has grown so much individually in the last three years, it’s a richer and deeper performance,” Chiang believes. “They already have established chemistry, so we just dove right in and got to it.”

Sloniker, who reprises his role as the playwright Matt in “Red Light Winter,” adds that this “allowed us to start where we left off…. The show is much more moving. More real. And doing this in rep [also] requires me to play a character who is opposite to Matt [in "25 Saints"]. I haven’t been through anything this intense as an actor since grad school days.”

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Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Tim Gouran and Mariel Neto in "Red Light Winter." Photo: Benito Vasquez

A residue of Chiang’s science background, Azeotrope's moniker was chosen to suggest the company’s mission — to create “a space where audiences confront the marginalized and obscured, bringing visibility to the invisible.” An “azeotrope,” explains Sloniker, “is the boiling point where a mixture of two or more constituents cannot be altered by distillation.” As far as the issues in a play, the metaphor refers to “components that cannot be separated from each other” when the boiling point is reached.

“There is more than one side to a coin, so to speak," he says. "Specifically with ‘25 Saints,’ meth cooking in Appalachia isn’t solely an illegal endeavor run by criminals. It’s the by-product of poverty, social and political structures, family culture, education. This is a very complex issue that most of America refuses to acknowledge. Although we cannot deal with all of the issues surrounding this culture in our production, we hope to see the humans behind it and initiate conversation about these underrepresented problems.”

This also explains one of the key things that distinguishes Azeotrope from companies like Washington Ensemble Theatre, whose choice of plays tends to be oriented around the strengths of the ensemble. Aside from Sloniker, Azeotrope has no fixed ensemble of actors who reappear. Their focus is above all on the play itself, which dictates who they cast.

“We don’t even have an official season every year,” Chiang remarks. “If we don’t find a play that speaks to us both, we’d rather go into hibernation than be cornered into a slot that has to be ‘filled.’ That’s such a turnkey way of doing theater, which I don’t think is useful.”

And the plays that speak to them? “I like doing plays about little people in big worlds," Chiang explains. "This is probably where the idea of the marginalized comes from. If theater is supposed to be a representation of life, then what is the kind of life that deserves exposure or visibility?”

In Azeotrope’s aesthetic, Chiang points out, plays about desperate characters are more compelling than the many commercial plays “about wealthy people.” Not surprisingly, the playwrights they present challenge audience’s comfort zones and tend to inspire diametrically opposite critical reactions. Their characters are often distinctly unlikeable or tormented by impossibly cross-wired allegiances.

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Libby Barnard and Tim Gouran in "25 Saints". Photo: Todd Hobert

While the meth cookers in “25 Saints” may immediately trigger “Breaking Bad” flashbacks, the play’s external situation and rapid plot twists reinforce the sense of urgency Chiang believes is essential to making theater matter to audiences. And that ultimately comes down to the portrayal of people trapped by “an interior trauma or something they can’t resolve. For these people to navigate the world is not an easy task. They’re involved in a kind of spiritual life and death.”

If you go: Azeotrope performs “Red Light Winter” and “25 Saints” in rep through November 24 at ACT’s Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, 700 Union Street, Seattle. Tickets online or at 206-292-7676.


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