"Who's to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?" That's a line from Secretary, a movie written by Erin Cressida Wilson. It could also be a fitting tag line for Dakota's Belly, Wyoming, a one-act dramedy by Wilson, in which Vern flees to his sister Dakota's ranch to escape the dissolution of his marriage. It isn't long before his wife, Trixie, shows up with a few surprises. The play is the first production by Toy Boat Theatre Company, an enterprise under the aegis of Tacoma Spaceworks.
Does Tacoma really need a new theater company? As Gold From Straw proved last year, new ventures add vitality to the live entertainment scene, along with fresh new voices and talents unlikely to be readily embraced by more traditional companies. I spoke to Jen Davis, the company's associate artistic director, about Toy Boat's aims and aspirations.
"It started as a sort of collaboration between myself and Dr. Marilyn Bennett," she explains. "She has been an adjunct professor at UPS (University of Puget Sound) for three years, which is the time I've been there, and we've worked together since she cast me in Uncle Vanya as a freshman." When Spaceworks offered a terrific deal on a Hilltop space, they realized it was the perfect moment to bring their dream to fruition. "The only cost to you," Davis says, "is paying utilities at the end of your residency." Alex Smith, seen most recently in The Lion in Winter at Lakewood Playhouse, joined the duo as Toy Boat's technical managing director.
I asked Davis if there's any significance to the name of the company, other than the obvious tongue-twister reference. She says Bennett and her husband always wanted a company called Toy Boat, though it could have been a bakery as easily as a theater company. "That's a name they'd had on the back burner for a long time. ... That's a really hard thing that no one ever thinks about, coming up with a name." I remember the difficulty in getting a dozen people to agree on a moniker for a troupe in Oklahoma, and I have to agree.
"Marilyn chose the play," Davis continues. "This has been a play that she's had in her back pocket ... I think Marilyn got the script from a friend of a friend of the playwright. It really works for doing a project in this space. It's 50 minutes long. It's kind of quirky." Davis plays Dakota, and Josh Bornstein and Rachel Lionheart portray Vern and Trixie. Davis likes the "childlike innocence" of this dysfunctional Northern family. "The really great thing about these characters is ... they have a sort of arrested development quality about them. ... There are moments of sexual tension and sexual innuendo, but all within a sort of quirky childhood not-knowing-about-these-things. So I think that makes it really accessible."
I asked Davis about Toy Boat's plans following the wrap of Dakota's Belly, Wyoming. "We'll probably do some readings," she muses, "and some art events, because we have the space through September ... I think that the Toy Boat collaboration will always be something that gets picked up from time to time."
"What sets Toy Boat apart?" the company's website asks rhetorically. Hopefully, its reply in the form of a motto will prove true: "We favor unpretentious yet literate plays which make an honest emotional connection. ... Emphasis: great acting in a humble house."
Dakota’s Belly, Wyoming
Aug. 5-7 and 12-13, 8 p.m., $10 at BrownPaperTickets.com
Toy Boat Theatre, 1314 Martin Luther King Way, Tacoma