(L to R) Mary Kate Moran as Bernadette and Sharif Ali as Oliver.

In ‘Lemons’, a Vibrant Show Ripe with Timely Questions

The awkwardly titled Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, the latest production from Theater Schmeater (showing at Seattle Public Theater, through 5/4) requires a suspension of disbelief on several levels. But it asks worthwhile questions, in a short and snappy show that feels right for the sunshine.

 

Watching Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons requires a suspension of disbelief.

It’s one that the older women coming out of the theatre talking amongst themselves clearly weren’t willing to give, as all they could talk about was their disbelief. Why didn’t they write? Why didn’t they just talk in sign language?

They’re fair questions. And they’re among the ones I asked myself at various points of the show as well.

But let me say this: sometimes a suspension of disbelief is OK in, well, theatre (aka non-reality). And in order to have any chance of enjoying yourself in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, you need to accept going in (or soon thereafter) that many practical and technical questions will not be answered in this compact 85-minute show.

There are plenty of other questions that are richer for discussion anyway. And this awkwardly-titled play, a 2015 work by British playwright Sam Steiner, succeeds at raising a great many of them that are worth opening up.

In that sense, I like Theater Schmeater’s choice of opener for its 27th season — even as the script has some issues that strain the focus and, yes, require some suspension of disbelief in places it may not be warranted.

In Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, there are two narrative arcs of the play going on.

One of them is a relationship between a man and a woman (Oliver and Bernadette). It’s on them that we’re given the most detail. We know how they met — oddly, at a cat’s funeral, in a pet cemetery to which both kept returning. (The cat didn’t belong to either of them; they were connected distantly through a couple of acquaintances.) We know they’re from different worlds and different circles, and their differing levels of commitment to populist causes is a recurring conflict in the play. We know their sex life isn’t particularly good. We know about Oliver’s ex, the named-but-never-seen Julie, for whom he obviously still has some feelings.

Few of these tidbits are revealed in any linear fashion; indeed, the whole play is told in a mishmash of scenes, and while it’s generally easy to follow the order (thanks to sound and lighting cues, and a story that doesn’t get too complicated), it takes some time to get used to.

We also know that Oliver and Bernadette are an interracial couple in this staging. The play isn’t “about” an interracial relationship (probably due, in no small part, to the fact that the original script didn’t specify them as such). And that’s a refreshing change: to cast leading roles as Black and White without limiting that willingness only to shows that are “about” race.

The second narrative arc, on which we’re given surprisingly little detail, is the consideration, passage, implementation, and enforcement of the so-called “Hush Law,” which institutes the play’s central premise: each person can only speak 140 words per day, before their voice is shut off.

It’s here that the suspension of disbelief is required; and while it’s admirable to avoid getting bogged down in the details, on this we could’ve used a bit more. Principally, because from what we are told, it’s interesting stuff.

We know that lawmakers enacted the Hush Law over widespread protest, and that there was a period of only four days between passage and implementation. Oliver and his compatriots assume the law was enacted to silence (literally) dissent by minimizing dissidents’ speaking opportunities and protect the status quo, and that the law will weigh differently on the elite. Bernadette, meanwhile, asserts that it applies to everyone equally. There’s quickly some support for his view, as the law is suspended for any discussions taking place in the courtrooms (she’s a lawyer) and legislative halls. Worse, lawmakers quickly turn those halls into veritable cities, with plenty of food options, the idea being they can walk themselves off without facing the impact of their draconian prohibitions on the rest of the populace.

This setup is delicious — I can’t wait to hear more. But … that’s all we get. Again, it’s an invitation for so much more detail, but the script declines to go there. It’d be a gold mine for derivative works.

Most of the detail in the play is instead about how the young couple navigates their relationship, in a world in which communication must be kept to a minimum.

And while I understand and support the philosophy of keeping things short (yes please!), efficiency is a better measure. At several turns, this script makes inefficient use of its own limited word count. There are several segments focused on the characters creating their own truncated language (“luvu” instead of “love you,” for example). I think it’s safe to say the audience can be trusted to figure this out without too much exposition. Instead, we get the full lesson, in a few spots. The characters also do this elaborate play out of Morse code; but it’s never explained why they can’t simply write each other (or text on a cellphone, as one character appears to be communicating with someone else at a point, without obvious impact on his daily quota). And even if we suspend disbelief in yet another area and buy that the government was able to implement enforcement mechanisms in just four days, surely The Man can’t know about, much less enforce a ban on secretive writings with a pen (sans traceable technology). So while I appreciate the refusal to get bogged down on certain points — the script merely chooses the wrong bogs on others.

One of the other, tangential plot elements I found intriguing was getting a sense of whether quieter is better — if the words saved translated into better, more thoughtful communication. In Steiner’s play, the answer is a resounding no. The characters here appear given over to the fact that there will never be enough words in those 140 to say anything meaningful, so they squander them instead. (The play’s title, indeed, refers to the epitome of this phenomenon, when a character begins spouting off names of fruit to blow through the day’s quota.)

So what about the production?

Overall, I like it a lot. The casting (with Mary Kate Moran as Bernadette and Sharif Ali as Oliver) is great. Not only are the two believable in their roles, they have a good sense of the heightened drama required to keep up with — or help audiences keep up with — a play that pivots this quickly in time, mood, and stage of interpersonal conflict, around which a lot of the drama is based. For this, credit also the solid direction from co-directors Andrew Shanks and Jordan Michael Whidbey who (other than with the aforementioned script sluggishness in parts) kept things moving well.

The sound design is snappy and effectively marks scene changes, which is vital to keep the play moving along. (I don’t know how many scenes this 85-minute play has, but it seems like at least 50.) A minor-but-major gripe with the sounds: You’ll note there are two types of sound cues on scenes — a shorter pulse and a longer kind of “whoosh.” At first I thought the latter (swoosh) was to signify a leap in time — a clear demarcation of which would be helpful — but eventually realized that was not the case. So it’s either the opposite, where the shorter pulse is a major shift and the whoosh is just a day change, or it’s some other significance I didn’t grasp. Either way, that demarcation could have been used more effectively.

On the set design (centered largely around the couple’s bedroom), I’m of a couple minds. I like the mood, colors, pieces, arrangement — all the usual suspects. The issue here is that Seattle Public Theater uses this space so effectively, I’m used to seeing a more effective configuration. Theater Schmeater, in contrast, is a guest in the space — and the configuration in this show makes that a little too obvious, with both side sections blocked off and only the center open (suggesting that this design wouldn’t work from the side seats). Even absent that, the design doesn’t flow effectively into the overall space. The design works for the show — but the awkward moat between audience and stage, which SPT usually blends into their design work, here works as another element of disbelief the audience has to contend with. And unlike those found in the script, I’m not sure this one was necessary.

For Theater Schmeater, the move from resident company (in its own Belltown space for many years) to nomadic this season will no doubt be an adjustment. But I like the leanness of this operation, the forced creativity that comes with bringing a show into different houses and venues. And this production shows promise for where Theater Schmeater is looking in the future.

Fitting for a debut of the company’s reformulated approach, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is a show that opens a ton of questions on the possibilities for social and political control, and the absurdities that allow power differentials to subject the masses to. It’s an interesting show, and well worth the visit.


Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Theater Schmeater) runs through 5/4 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets $27, available hereFor showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all multi-stall and (newly) gender-neutral. Theatre is wheelchair accessible; but note that the accessible restrooms appeared to be out of order.

R. Barron reviewed arts behind the scenes (awards, grants, etc.), before writing for Seattle Gay Scene & NWTheatre.org. Passions include theatre, new works, and arts showcasing underrepresented voices.