Seattle Rep unites new theater with ambition of the first order

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There is a moment in ''The Ballad of Soapy Smith'' when the ambiguous culture hero of the title exclaims belligerently: ''All I ever wanted was everything. Is that too much to ask?''

A thoroughly American sentiment, and one entirely appropriate to the occasion on which the lines were first spoken. The opening night of the Seattle Repertory Theatre's new season was an event reflecting theatrical ambition of the first order.

When the curtain went up Oct. 26, a spanking new theater was inaugurated with the world premiere of a major work on the grand scale by a rising playwright. The play, developed from rough-draft form by the company, addresses a regional subject, and the production (running through Nov. 19) is almost entirely the work of regional actors.

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So much tried, so much dared - and in large part, so much successfully accomplished. The opening of ''The Ballad of Soapy Smith'' may loom in memory as the night when not only a theater company but one of America's best theater towns came of age.

First, the building. The Bagley Wright, named for the corporate eminence who generated the civic impulse that created the Seattle Rep in 1963, immediately joins the ranks of the best theater buildings in the country. On the outside, it is a whimsical, vaguely 1950s, multilayered cake-box affair, whose varying shades of green paint are a cause celebre in Seattle.

On the inside, it is something of a theater factory. Only a quarter or so of the space is devoted to actors and audience; the rest goes to management, designers, costumes, the scene shop (with room to drive a semi in through the doors) - all under one roof. This is a house where plays will be not just born, but made.

The Rep, which raised $4.4 million of the $10 million price tag to go with a bond issue voted by the citizens, got what it wanted. And what it wanted was surprisingly old-fashioned.

''An absolutely 18th-century proscenium house, with modern positions for lighting and sound,'' producing director Peter Donnelly calls it. The project's architects, the NBBJ group, responded smoothly to the challenge, devising a comfortable 864-seat theater in which actors can hit the back row with a whisper or a raised eyebrow.

Next, the town and the company. Seattle gives rise to a remarkable degree of theatrical ferment for a middle-size city. There are five fully professional companies that are soundly established and frequently excellent. They are surrounded by hosts of smaller troupes of every description. The University of Washington has one of the best actor-training programs in the nation. And these theaters are supported: The Seattle Rep alone has 24,000 season-ticket holders.

But while Seattle fosters a great deal of very respectable theater, it has contributed relatively little that is innovative. The Intiman is solidly classicist. A Contemporary Theater (ACT) produces recent works whose reputations are already made. Until recently, the Seattle Rep, flagship of the line, had no visible mission at all. While many of its productions individually sparkled, seasons had little coherence, and play choices ranged from the obvious to the tedious. Worse, in the midst of a burgeoning theatrical community, the Rep positively disdained to hire Seattle actors for anything save servant parts. It might as well have been located in Kansas City.

All that changed dramatically with the arrival four years ago of artistic director Dan Sullivan, a self-described ''gypsy director'' who had banged around many of the better regional theaters. Sullivan began hiring predominantly local casts and actively promoting new work.

During the past several years, the Rep has helped to develop new scripts by the likes of Snoo Wilson, Christopher Hampton, William Mastrosimone, and Michael Weller, usually in workshop settings with the authors sitting in. (Mastrosimone's ''Shivaree,'' which evolved in a workshop last year, opened under Sullivan's direction Nov. 9 in the Bagley Wright's smaller theater, the Forum.)

The Seattle Rep began to play an active role in the creation of American theater rather than merely serving to disseminate a received repertory. ''Over the last four years,'' Sullivan said on the day after the opening, ''we have been in transition to last night.''

Finally, then, the work itself. When Michael Weller (''Loose Ends,'' the screenplay for ''Hair'') was in Seattle two years ago, while the Rep was working on his ''Twenty-Three Years Later,'' he mentioned his interest in writing a play about a real-life con man, Jefferson (Soapy) Smith, who ended a tumultuous career in Skagway, Alaska.

Seattle is the jumping-off point for Alaska, and the development of Alaska is very much part of Seattle's history. Sullivan was fascinated by the chance to work on a large-canvas piece on a regional subject by a nationally known playwright, and he urged Weller to proceed with the promise that the result would be produced. The result was honed in a workshop production last year, then readied for the main stage.

Audaciously, Sullivan placed no limits on scope. And audaciously, Weller wrote an epic - three hours, 30 actors, a culture's foundation myth as the subject. In an era when commercial playwrights are cautiously crafting small domestic dramas for a handful of characters, a sprawling social comment like ''Soapy Smith'' would be a national event even if it were not a high-stakes gamble by a theater bidding for a national reputation.

Weller's opus, complete with an appropriately awful ''ballad'' recited in snatches by its poet-narrator, takes as its subject a trickster figure. This hustler of titanic proportions is undone when he comes to believe his own hustle.

Soapy Smith is a crook and a swindler, but he is also a culture builder. This contradiction lies at the root of civilization. Rome, after all, was founded by a band of brigands, and Weller wants to show us the kind of heroic folly that leads people to stake ridiculous claims that eventually devolve into settled societies. He also wants to look at that special American folly, the perpetual belief in self-renewal and self-transcendence. He isn't afraid to spread an entire nascent civilization across the stage for examination.

Sullivan and director Robert Egan turned Weller's epic into a celebration of the depth and capacity of Seattle's theater community. Of the 30 cast members, 29 are regular Seattle performers. And the ''locals'' (many from up and down the coast) are up to it. From leading man to cameo, the performances range from superlative to solidly professional.

Weller's play, truth to tell, is still a bit roughly hewn, rather like the Skagway it portrays. The construction is awkwardly visible at times. Nevertheless, as a spectacle, a moral fable, and an entertaining yarn, ''Soapy Smith'' is bang-up, wild-and-woolly theater. The script bristles with unprintable witticisms; Weller is a master of the exuberant, creative profanity that flourishes on the frontier. With another round of finish work, this may yet prove an American classic.

The title role might as well have been written for Denis Arndt, who may or may not be the Northwest's best actor but certainly can dominate a stage like no one else around. This kind of swaggering, aggressive, larger-than-life character is what the redoubtable Arndt does best, and he steals the show as deftly as Jeff Smith used to pull off the ''soap game.'' Chortling gleefully that ''capitalism is the greatest hustle going,'' or staggered into slack-faced disbelief by the realization that the mob is harder to hold than to win, Arndt is an event in himself.

There are some sterling performances in supporting roles. John Aylward is delightful as Smith's sour, doubting partner; Richard Riehle stands out as one of the town's blustering entrepreneurs. Marjorie Nelson has just the right sympathetic tartness as the town's madam.

All of the work is strong, but one flaw is that the supporting characters tend to be overly functional, without enough that is unique to say for themselves. This leaves the actors without room to find something special in their parts.

Egan does yeoman work in maintaining the flow and pace of this mammoth production. He has worked well with scenic designer Eugene Lee and costume designer Robert Blackman in adding detail to Weller's broad sketches. The physical production speaks well for the Rep's technical resources, including the Bagley Wright Theatre itself.

In recent years there has been something of a retreat from the concept of regional theater around the country. A great many companies now prefer the less-committed term ''resident theater.'' The Seattle Repertory has reaffirmed the value of truly regional theater with the kind of boisterous optimism that built the Northwest in the first place. This is regional theater in the best sense, drawing its themes and its talents from its surroundings to tell the local version of a universal story.

Seattle has been bubbling boosterishly over the Bagley Wright, the Seattle Rep, and ''Soapy Smith.'' Unlike the self-deluded hustle peddled by the eponymous Mr. Smith, this hype is justified.

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