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Friday, September 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Open-air plays blend into settings

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

SITE Specific plays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 22, Lee Center for the Arts, Marion and 12th Avenue on the Seattle University campus; $10 (206-296-2244).

In a wooded glade on the Seattle University campus, a rustling sound captures the notice of several dozen people seated on folding chairs. A bird? A stray cat? Nope, an actor perched in a tree.

So starts Cheryl Slean's "Sanctuary," one of four short one-acts in SITE (Seattle Indie Theatre Experiment) Specific, a new festival of playlets staged by their authors in unusual settings.

Plays written for public sites are multiplying here, fueled by grants from 4Culture (the King County arts agency), one of SITE Specific's funders. And this first edition of what co-producers Slean and Ki Gottberg hope will be an annual affair, is a modest, engaging start.

Part of the novelty here is congregating in the gallery of Seattle University's Lee Center for the Arts, then being led around campus to various staging areas (all with seating).

None of the works in this scouting expedition will set the world on fire. But three of the four are diverting exercises in so-called "eco-theater." They begin, at the Lee Center, with Gottberg's whimsical and piquant fable, "Birdie Come Home."

A woolly, forlorn nest (played by Elizabeth Kenny) bemoans the loss of her resident bird (Peggy Poage), whom we first spot out of the gallery's tall glass windows, flouncing up 12th Avenue. Their reunion is a droll hoot, and their costumes (designed by Harmony J.K. Arnold) are impressive pieces of textile art.

Of all the plays, Slean's "Sanctuary" interacts with its setting most affectingly. The play conjures a time (2040) of permanent war, as cynical cops (Eric Ray Anderson and Sarah Harlett) patrol parks and cemeteries for terrorists and misfits.

Their meet-up with Stew (Brian Ibsen), a tree-climbing vagrant, is darkly Orwellian yet humorous too — as when the kilt-wearing Stew, asked his profession, declares, "I eat raw food, play the flute and live in my car."

"Sanctuary" cleverly works in the presence of a nearby chapel, and ruminates on a postapocalyptic America without pretentiousness.

Vincent Delaney's "Transpiration" also bemoans the future state of the Earth via a dialogue between two botanists in Hazmat suits. A lushly landscaped spot stands in for a model garden, where plant species from an era when "people could go in the woods in normal clothes" are painstakingly revived.

"Do you think nature hates us for what we did to it?" Ray Tagavilla's flirtatious Hake asks Erin Kraft's fellow botanist Engelman.

"Transpiration" poses other big questions, flirts with murder mystery, and seems like a bulky sketch for a longer work.

The fourth piece in SITE Specific, "H-O-R-S-E," is a more slapdash effort by Kristen Kosmas, a gifted writer-actor formerly based in Seattle.

Performed by Tina Kunz in a small cement plaza with street noise above, the monologue begins with a litany of "I'm not allowed to tell you" statements, and tangles up in a circular knot of self-referential language play. The idea here may be to explore the boundaries between secrets, lies and truths. Or maybe not.

In any case, it's tiresome. And unlike the other entries in this interesting new mini-fest, it could have been performed anywhere.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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