Four goofy guys reunite at Empty Space for sci-fi musical spoof

In the '70 and '80s, they were young theater hotshots, willing to try just about anything to get a laugh — outdoors before a small mob in Volunteer Park, or indoors on a cozy stage at the Empty Space Theatre. Whether it was an adaptation of an Old West melodrama or a vintage comedy, or a wacky new sci-fi spoof they cooked up together around somebody's dining room table, the four fast friends and artistic comrades injected their scripts with gags and goofiness, pratfalls and irreverence. And together they helped forge what is now fondly known as the Seattle "park-show style," a popular genre that helped give the city's theater scene a vibrant jolt of energy.

Today only one of the four, actor R. Hamilton Wright, works full-time in the theater. The others have taken on "straight" jobs: Phil Shallat is an accounts manager at public radio station KUOW, while fellow actor-writer Rex McDowell works as a Web site developer for businesses. And musician-composer John Engerman is teaching graphic arts at Syracuse University in New York.

But they remain buddies. And for the first time in years they've come together to concoct a new show: "Ming the Rude," which will be premiered Wednesday by Empty Space Theatre, the company where so many veteran Seattle stage artists honed their performing chops.

"Ming the Rude" features a cast of young local actors, some with experience in the burgeoning sketch-comedy scene here. The show will be directed, however, by Lori Larsen, a leading Empty Space alum. And it is based on the three short works in the "Ming Cycle," written by Engerman, Wright, Shallat and McDowell between 1979-82.

A mock sci-fi serial about the mythical Kingdom of Courtesy, with cheeky nods to "Star Wars" and "Flash Gordon," the musical "Ming" spoofs were originally commissioned by the Bathhouse Theatre and performed at indoor and outdoor venues around King County.

Now they've been melded and reworked into a single evening, with new dialogue and songs, but the central characters remain the same: Prince Larry; his best friend and "Mignon," Eddie; Larry's mom, Queen Beth; and Dr. Vern Espe, "the wisest man in the universe."

'Funny, smart, anarchic'

Current Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver has happy memories of seeing similar park shows as a kid, and being "entranced" and "enchanted" by "how funny, smart, anarchic and just plain ridiculous" they were.

When she heard the foursome were conspiring to bring back the park format, she invited them to come "home" to the Space and open its 2003-04 season with "Ming the Rude."

"I thought it would be fun to have those guys back in the house, and the combination of them and Lori was irresistible," she notes. "I also loved the idea of younger Seattle actors taking on this style, and making it their own. It just felt like a passing of the torch."

Looking back at how the genre took hold here decades ago, McDowell points to a prime influence: the inspired physical-comedy training numerous Space actors received at the University of Washington from commedia dell arte expert Arne Zaslove.

Burke Walker, the Space's founding artistic director, also encouraged the comedy talents of his company — which at various times included such merry jesters as TV/stage actor John Aylward, Kurt Beattie and Jeff Steitzer (current and former artistic directors of ACT Theatre, respectively), Linda Hartzell (artistic director of Seattle Children's Theatre) and John Procaccino and David Pichette (well-known local actors). Shallat, who also did outdoor shows with the One Reel Vaudeville Show, recalls the felicitous mix of disciplined craft and artistic license that defined such Space park hits as "Ten Nights in a Barroom," "The Fiend of Gotham" and "The Day They Came From Way Out There." (Seattle Times critic Wayne Johnson hailed the latter romp as "an explosion of outrageous theatrical silliness.")

"They were all comedies," Shallat explains. "The actors played stock characters doing broad stuff, with lots of leeway for their own improvs and asides. It was a loose, freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere. As long as you were funny, you could do anything you wanted onstage. And given that latitude, many people rose to the occasion."

"In the park there were planes overhead, people playing drums, drunks hanging around," says Engerman. "It was wild and woolly, and a kind of golden era for the Space. A particularly wonderful group of people, all coming from the same place and with the same sensibility, were getting together and doing some brilliant stuff."

McDowell looks back fondly, and with some amazement, to the time when he was one of the Space's busiest performing zanies.

"I must have been about 22, 23," McDowell says, "and I was doing three shows a day — a park show at 4 o'clock, an indoor show at 8, and then a midnight show."

He recalls that some park outings would attract upwards of 500 people, "the young and the elderly, a real cross-section of kids who loved the knockabout shtick we did and those who got into the verbal asides we improvised, the jokes about (former president) Ronald Reagan and (former Washington governor) Dixie Lee Ray."

When municipal funding for the free park shows dried up, Empty Space continued to produce rambunctious comedy sprees indoors.

Various combinations of Engerman, Wright, Shallat and McDowell helped create such offerings as "Born to Maximize" and "The Big Bad Wolf and How He Got That Way."

Later, as the cohorts hit middle age and began to drift away to better-paying work, the Space's comic tone shifted a bit. Under the artistic leadership of Eddie Levi Lee, the company crafted "Wuthering! Heights! The! Musical!" and "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" — also rambunctious spoofs, but less improvised.

A new generation

The four co-writers of "Ming the Rude" are curious to see how today's youngish Empty Space audience, and a new generation of Seattle thespians, will react to fare that captivated the city in earlier times.

"It's about attacking the material with the right style, the right energy, the right kind of irreverence," suggests Narver.

"They've got a talented group of actors, and I'm excited to see what they and Lori come up with," says McDowell. And gauging from his 12-year-old son's reaction to the script, and his own theater instincts, Shallat is optimistic "Ming the Rude" will catch on and lead to more writing projects with his old friends.

Though none of the four "Ming" writers are in the production's cast, they will get some face time on stage. "We're doing guest appearances," confides McDowell, who hasn't acted in a play in eight years — but seems delighted about getting a cameo shot in this one.

Misha Berson:

Theater preview

"Ming the Rude" previews tonight and tomorrow, opens Wednesday and runs through Nov.9 at Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; $22-$35, $10 under age 25 ( or 206-547-7500).