In the past couple of years, I’ve been to see a fair number of shows at Annex Theatre. Though a small, fringe theatre in an odd upstairs space in Capitol Hill, they have always impressed me with the high quality of writing, production, and acting in their shows. Nearly all of their plays are thought-provoking in some way, or tell a gripping, interesting story, or at the very least are darkly comedic.
With such a high standard, I was disappointed by “Cocktails at the Centre of the Earth,” which I went to see on Friday evening. However, I need to put some caveats into place before I continue:
1. I am biased against nearly everything Steampunk-related. I am not intimately familiar with the literature that inspired the genre, but I have read some short stories and a novel set in a steampunk universe, and I’m familiar with the current incarnation of steampunk in Pacific Northwest culture, which seems to have more to do with wearing a corset and pocketwatch, and gluing a cog to your hat, than anything related to, say, Babbage’s Difference Engine or Steam-powered engines. I’ve been a big scifi nerd practically since birth, and while I do enjoy some truly terrible science fiction movies and shows, I have a pretty high standard for narrative in the genre, and thus far I have not found anything steampunk that has met these standards.
Steampunk also bothers me because it is very white- and upper-class-centric. I’ve said this several times throughout the blog, but I am a white and culturally-middle class human being, but I do try to be conscious of other narratives, and I often find them more interesting because they are not as familiar to me. Steampunk glorifies the 19th century, a time when the white Western world was doing things like attempting to destroy Chinese civilization with opium, massacring Native Americans, using capitalist economics to enslave all kinds of cultures, from English and Irish to Indian to African, and discovering how cheap and plentiful fossil fuels were. Yes, there was a great focus on the power of science, knowledge, and exploration – this is also highlighted in the Indiana Jones movies, in case those in my age group have forgotten. But unlike Indiana Jones, steampunk focuses on the mystery, the magic of these ideas, and how nice it must be to be a brilliant upper class Brit who has nothing better to do with his (almost never her) money than explore the world on an airship, with no thought to how such a ship could be manufactured.
Imperialism is bad, racism is bad, ignorance and superstition are pretty harmful, and yet I find steampunk glosses over these aspects of the glorious Victorian and Edwardian eras and focuses instead on how pretty petticoats were.
2. The script has the same witticism, timing, and many of the stock characters, of a drawing room play. Again, I’m biased against such plays because they’re all about the dialogue, with a very thin romantic plot.
So, with these two biases of mine in mind, one could understand how I did not enjoy the play as much as I hoped to. The costumes were indeed lovely, the characters were indeed very steampunk, and the plot took place in a series of more and more fanciful cocktail lounges, with burlesque routines and live music sandwiched between scenes. The writing was pretty weak – the end, in which all the characters pair up, came out of nowhere. The characters themselves are unsympathetic cardboard cutouts in fancy clothes (I just don’t feel anything for a series of bored and deceitful stage presences, and I don’t care about the miniscule problems they have). The music is nice but again, has nothing to do with the play (I’ve directed two shows now which involve live music, and I had a brilliant composer friend write the music for me to fit the show, specifically). And the burlesque routine wasn’t even that exciting as the dancer herself looked bored out of her skull.
I will say this: it is a very Seattle play, culturally. Burlesque and steampunk are both huge here, and the music was a nice distraction – it really had nothing to do with the show, other than two of the characters happen to be singer/poets. It felt more like a cabaret with occasional funny dialogue between stock characters.
HOWEVER. If you like steampunk, if you like light-hearted fanciful comedies, if you like live music, then you should go see this show. It has all of these things, and does them decently.