I’m not one to ask to have my hand held when it comes to experiencing theater. Yet after seeing Harrison David Rivers’ “This Bitter Earth” at Seattle Public Theater (through Feb. 19) and Dante Green’s musical “An Incomplete List of All the Things I’m Going to Miss When the World Is No Longer:” presented by Dacha Theatre in association with Theatre Off Jackson (through Feb. 11), I may have to change my tune. The use of nonlinear storytelling, mixing memory and reality in both shows left me looking for someone or something to point me toward meaning amid the confusion.
"An Incomplete List …"
Let’s start with “An Incomplete List,” an electro-synth musical at the end of the world, directed by Nansi Dwendi. Everyone on Earth knows exactly when the world will end, so a group of friends gathers for one last party and you and the rest of the audience are invited. With a set lined with shiny silver from scenic designer Devin Petersen, the party feels a bit like stepping into a tinfoil hat, and even some of Green’s music gives an eerie vibe as if aliens could arrive at any moment.
But what follows sits somewhere between a musical as billed, a play interspersed with occasional tangentially connected music, and some more ethereal and nebulous experience. Very quickly after the show begins, the party idea evaporates (to return sporadically later), suddenly plunging the audience into a series of short, fragmented memories for which you have no context. An odd sense of detachment forms as you watch scene snippets presented in a void, like seeing someone you don’t know proposing to someone else you don’t know and then getting rejected at a point in their personal timelines that you don’t know, and now maybe that person is already married (or are they divorced?) and all three are at this party and you’re not sure what to make of it.
That said, some strong performances are tucked away in here. Trust (Carolynne Wilcox), for example, replays a touching memory of her now-missing son John (Matthew Lockett) saying he loves her over and over. And Tessa James and Sasha Hartanov ground the show with something of an emotional storyline as Micah and Pruitt facing down the end of the world without yet having admitted their true feelings for each other.
“An Incomplete List” is a surreal ride verging on a fever dream. The text of the show seems to be asking us to be present in this moment, but the experience may leave you feeling a bit jumbled as you try to piece together the brief flashes of scenes you’re shown. What’s unfortunate is that lack of clarity obscures the heart of this show: the value of the moments we spend with those we care about.
"This Bitter Earth"
Though decidedly more grounded in reality, “This Bitter Earth,” directed by Brandon Ivie, isn’t as dissimilar an experience as you might expect. The show follows Jesse, a Black playwright, and his boyfriend, Neil, a white trust fund kid and Black Lives Matter activist willing to travel out of state to attend protests. Framed by Jesse directly addressing the audience, the show flashes back in time, showing us moments throughout Jesse and Neil’s relationship leading up to the present, when Neil is no longer in Jesse’s life.
Rivers’ play is clever and Brodrick Santeze Ryans (Jesse) does well capturing the show’s wit, which can border on a sitcom feel with how cleanly crafted the setups and punchlines are. But sometimes the cleverness of Rivers’ writing makes the conversations happening feel more like two ideologies facing off on stage rather than two people in a relationship trying to work through their issues. Combine that with the nonlinear storytelling that made it tough to fully piece together the deterioration of their relationship, and it felt like I was missing the love between these two men that should be the emotional core of this story.
Now, I admit, it’s entirely possible I fell into a trap set by the play, a trap baiting the audience into hyper-focusing on the conversations around race and class so that we don’t fully appreciate the two humans at its core whose lives will be irrevocably shattered. But the play presents us with such an interesting circumstance, where a Black man’s outward reaction to the repeated killing of other Black men by the police was deemed too apathetic by his white partner. That policing, pun intended, of Jesse’s reaction is something well worth sinking your teeth into. But when I walked out of the play, I felt like I was holding bits and pieces of that story — shards that I couldn’t quite figure out how to assemble to create meaning.
Perhaps I’m asking too much and searching for additional meaning where there is none. Maybe the simple takeaway here and with “An Incomplete List” is just to remember to count our blessings. Things, be they relationships or our time on Earth, don’t last forever. And, whether the presentation frustrates me or not, there’s absolutely value in being reminded to slow down and appreciate what you have.