Tomlin is a chameleon, a dynamo and nothing short of phenomenal

Wednesday, September 13, 2000


It’s a word writer Jane Wagner invented: “awe-robics.”

She uses it in her brilliant one-performer play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which is playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The show is definitely awe-robic. And its brilliance is part Wagner and part Lily Tomlin, the solo performer. Tomlin is a fabulous awe-robicist. She and Wagner (and some incredibly canny sound and lighting men) conjure up a dozen characters and twice that many moods. The effect is truly awesome.

The main character in “Search” is Trudy, an adept of “shamanistic shape-shifting.” Tomlin herself is an adept of something like that. She assumes a repertoire of diverse types, complete with their characteristic gestures, postures, moods and intonations. At first the effect is dazzling, even incredible. Then it is funny. Then it is poignant, even tragic. Then it induces something like insight and compassion.

Getting back to Trudy: She is a New York bag woman. She philosophizes. When she is in awe of the universe she is also in awe of her capacity for awe. That is why she sets time aside each day for awe-robics. Trudy is nuts. “Going crazy is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she avows. “I don’t say it’s for everybody,” she continues. “Some people couldn’t cope.”

Anyway, Trudy’s peculiarity fits her perfectly for her job as a “creative consultant to these aliens from outer space.” Trudy not only can beam in aliens. She also can tune into other people’s lives the way less fortunate/unfortunate ordinary mortals tune into TV, occasionally switching channels. So the space aliens, and Tomlin’s audience, get a look at Agnus, a 15-year-old performance artist who is more alienated than the aliens. Then there’s Agnus’ mother, Edie, a convert to lesbianism. Agnus’ grandparents turn out to be as middle of the road as Agnus and Edie are far out.

Agnus’ mom was a dedicated feminist in the ’70s, as were her friends Marge and Lyn. The times change them all greatly. Brandy and Tina, a pair of prostitutes, happen to see Agnus. Then they pal around with Trudy. Brandy, as it happens, lent a young gay man enough money to get him through hairdressing school. And whom should this hairdresser have as a client but Kate.

Kate is jaded and bored. But then she picks up a suicide note written by someone named Chrissy. Well, we have already met Chrissy at her aerobics class. “All my life,” she confides, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific.”

Sometimes Tomlin the shamanistic shape-shifter seems to alter her very bone structure. Kate’s face is angular, perhaps from too many face lifts. Trudy’s whole skeleton seems to droop under its burden of psychic overload.

Some of this seemingly infinite variety is the result of a lighting design by Ken Billington. He even lets us see the reflection from a mirror on the backside of a windshield visor. Brandy uses it to check her makeup as she rides in a john’s car.

G. Thomas Clark and Mark Bennett cue in dozens of sound effects that locate the action in such diverse locales as a Midtown street corner and an Uptown East Side supper club. When Trudy’s consciousness finds itself in a men’s locker room, we even hear the buzzing of an electric shaver.

“Search” began its stage life some 15 years ago as a Rep workshop production. Then it was a Rep mainstage show. Then it went on to Broadway. Now here it is again, similar to, but not the same as, that original production.

Tomlin has been delighting comedy fans for three decades. She first became a national treasure when she portrayed Edith Ann and Ernestine on the TV comedy show “Laugh In.” Since then, Tomlin, and her life partner and professional colleague, Wagner, have together and separately done a lot of TV, film and stage work.

If “Search,” which Wagner not only wrote but also directs, has any problem, it is tremendous abundance. Its awe-robics can be not only stimulating but also exhausting. The show is a workout for the audience. But what about Tomlin? She must be near collapse. No, she goes on and on, as a Wagnerian pun puts it, “awe-infinitum.”