Before the Comet Comes

Written and directed by Nikki Appino, original score by Robin Holcomb.

Before the Comet Comes is a multimedia theater piece that explores personal and social apocalypse on the eve of the new millennium. This work premiered at the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle Washington.

Before the Comet Comes, is a theatre piece exploring personal and social apocalypse. It’s December 31st 1999, the eve of the 2nd Great Millennium, and four characters are stumbling about wondering if Y2K will destroy their computers, if the Second Coming is a hand, and if it really is the end of the world. In this narrative – told through text, music, and late-night video, we witness their hilarious and harrowing attempts to survive. Before the Comet Comes is a little tour through death, peace, and the ultimate meaning of life.



Collective trial and error equals a stage-ready ‘Project X’

By Gianni Truzzi
Special to the Seattle Post Intelligencer
May 2, 2003

An audience attending Nikki Appino’s new play may initially react to it as one of its cast members reportedly did, when she was brought in after most of the creative work had been done. Fellow performer Todd Jefferson Moore related how Marianne Owen, who has a distinguished list of credits in conventional theater, gave him repeated “what’s this?” sidelong looks during rehearsals.

One can hardly blame her. The set for “Project X” includes a stage covered with black feathers, a bank of video monitors and tape machines that interject parodies of millennial pronouncements of doom as the performance proceeds. Owen stepped into what had been a yearlong ongoing conversation about waiting for catastrophe to strike.

Like director/playwright Appino’s other work, most recently the dance/theater piece about Mata Hari, “Invisible Ink,” or the spectacle on skates, “Rain City Rollers,” “Project X” was nurtured from vague inspiration into a final script through research and collaborative workshops with actors and designers. It explores cataclysm large and small, through the eyes of a family waiting for the death of one of its members on the eve of the new millennium. Yet, provocatively, it is less about the thunderclap of catastrophe itself than its anticipation.

An event like this one can’t come from fully conventional methods, where the script is written, and actors rehearse for four weeks. What an audience will see is the considered result of a year of collective trial and error.

This is not what they taught Appino at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting.

She chuckles when she considers her conventional “skirt and character shoes” beginnings at New York’s famed crucible for forging method actors. “But it wasn’t interesting to me,” she confessed. “It didn’t satisfy me as a person.”

Later, at NYU, she moved on to directing and had the opportunity to work with the innovative Anne Bogart, who “generated” pieces instead of just interpreting them. Appino learned by watching Bogart collaborate with her actors and designers in workshops to create contemporary theater.

Since then, Appino has been making what she describes as “big, weird, strange theater” through exploratory means of working. She admitted she often doesn’t know what a project is really going to be when it starts out. “After a month or two,” she said, “I could discover I’m writing a musical.”

Her latest project brings her full circle to her beginning in Seattle, mounting it at the Empty Space Theater where she got her first directing job more than 10 years ago. Since that time, she and her company, “House of Dames,” have built a reputation for innovative works.

Appino emphasizes that, for her at least, “experimental” does not mean sloppy. “I hate lack of rigor,” she says of seeing other work. Eventually, the noodling ends and the serious work of writing begins.

Although she does not slavishly follow the classic linear form of beginning, middle and end, she understands that “narrative is in our genetic makeup. We sit in the seat, and we make story.” That’s a tension that she both respects and tries to harness.

Moore, together with Nick Garrison, began working with Appino on “Project X” more than a year ago. The actor, who just completed his own well-received run of “Under the Lintel,” said that he didn’t find Appino’s approach too unfamiliar. “I’m a child of the ’60s,” he said, and referenced the boundary-pushing theater companies of that decade and the next like New York’s Wooster Group that pioneered many of the techniques Appino likes to employ. He describes the opening processes as “table work,” sitting together and conceptualizing with the books, videos and notions that Appino brings to them.

For “Project X,” that included reading, out loud like a script, the transcripts of the trials of the Branch Davidians, the cult led by David Koresh in Waco. Other research included books on millennial theories and cults, and video documentaries on the Middle Ages.

Garrison said that being in on the construction of the piece from the beginning places him in a richer position as a performer. “You’re both outside and inside,” he said. “You have more of a stake in it. That’s not an opportunity you get often as an actor.”

For cast member Gina Malvestuto, the point at which they were to shift from being collaborative creators to interpreters wasn’t always clear. “The boundaries are difficult to know,” she said of the gradual process. “The interesting thing is finding them out.”

Moore acknowledged the more diffuse process can, on occasion, be frustrating. “I don’t always know if they’re going to understand,” he said of the audience. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to take them along.”

Garrison, however, observes it makes more sense when it’s put together. He cited the first viewing of the videos they made as the point at which the pieces started to come together as a whole.

“I doubt people will be bored,” he said.

A family struggles as the end nears in ‘Project X’

Seattle Times Entertainment & the Arts Theater Review
May 9, 2003

Some say the world will end in fire, some in ice, some with a whimper rather than a bang. In Nikki Appino’s quirky waking dream of a performance piece, “Project X: Before the Comet Comes,” the apocalypse never does arrive as touted.

Yet on a number of levels, “Project X” is about dealing with endings and loss when no fresh beginnings are in sight. In its own tender, angry, sometimes goofy way, this is a thoughtful study of letting go and getting by.

Each of writer-director Appino’s theater pieces has had its own singular style. But running through much of her original work, from the visually grand “Djinn,” to the more intimate “Invisible Ink” and “Project X,” are currents of melancholy, kooky humor and a human-scale approach to epic subjects.

A 75-minute, multimedia portrait of a family anxiously waiting out the turn of the millennium on Dec. 31, 1999, “Project X” (which could use a better title) is premiering at Empty Space Theatre on a three-way set designed by Meg Fox. (She also did the beautiful lighting.)

At one end of the stage, a bank of TV sets transmits New Year’s Eve hoopla and fake infomercials, and a grizzly older man in a shabby bathrobe narrates the end of the world as he sees it.

On the other side, two edgy siblings stand at the bedside of their semi-comatose mother, who is in the last stages of terminal illness.

Bridging these two related but opposing worlds is noted Seattle composer and musician Robin Holcomb, spinning out quietly brooding reveries on a grand piano.

The family on view clearly split apart long ago.

And the reasons why (not revealed until late in the show) prove to be less affecting than the clan’s immediate grapplings with life and death.

Todd Jefferson Moore’s eccentric, isolated Jimmy, the father, alternates between waxing paranoia about Y2K bringing on Armageddon, and declaring his grandiose metaphysical ambitions: “I have the means to reach infinity!”

Meanwhile, his estranged adult children Bobby (Nick Garrison) and Barbara (Gina Malvestuto) care for their mother Suzanne (Marianne Owen) Ñ who may or may not be having occasional spurts of total lucidity.

Those uncomfortable with a realistic portrayal of someone with final-stage cancer should probably take a pass on “Project X.” But the alternating affection and frustration, family tensions and bursts of gallows humor in this vigil feel remarkably true, unmelodramatic and even cathartic to witness.

Appino also tosses into the mix original video spots: ersatz late-night cable-TV projections of her characters’ psychic yearnings. The funniest and creepiest is an eerie advertisement for physical immortality. The clumsiest: a hokey spoof on TV rent-a-psychics, which turns into a family therapy session a la Dr. Phil.

Throughout, Holcomb sets an elegiac tone with her sensitive, minor-key musical embellishments. And within the confines of their archetypal roles, some actors make strong impressions, too.

Moore is riveting as the questing exile father, who has drifted so far from normal human intercourse he can barely make contact when one of his kids seeks him out.

Garrison has a sketchier role, yet brings a moment-to-moment aliveness to the sardonic Bobby.

Particularly good are his real/imagined encounters with his mother, played with great facility by Owen. Confined to a bed, and out of it much of the time, this actress gives Suzanne a vivid presence Ñ even when she’s barely breathing.

Less successful is Malvestuto, whose character spends much of her time barking angry messages into a cellphone. You can buy that Barbara is enraged at her faithless lover, and entire family, but Malvestuto’s stridency needs variations.

As midnight strikes, the pastel fireworks explode in the TV skies and the world does not end (I’m not giving anything away here), this broken clan has a fleeting moment of poignant reconciliation Ñ the kind that occurs when people’s backs are up against the wall.

It is a fitting end to “Project X,” which, with a blessed lack of sentimentality and its own odd rhythms, eases the apocalypse of grief with a healing drop of forgiveness.