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Gathering Genius Award winners under one roof is a smart -- and fun -- idea

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American Dreams sink into the floor at the Henry Gallery, where there's nothing left of a pristine white bungalow but its peaked roof and a light in its attic, the whole thing poised to fold like a furled umbrella and slip out of reach.

This elusive house of dreams comes to us courtesy of John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler, an art team that astonishes as it entertains. They're not only inventive and comic, as a team they're a genius and have the cake to prove it.

Four years ago, when the Stranger debuted its Genius Awards in visual art, theater, literature and film, with a fifth award thrown in for creative arts organizations, editor Dan Savage said the awards would steer a middle course between the MacArthurs and Publishers Clearinghouse.

Genius is a big word. To keep people from laughing at the overkill of it all, winners get $5,000. And to keep the award from being too serious, those certified with the G-word are notified by means of cheap chocolate, with the message in frosting.

Somewhere along the line, the joke got lost. The cakes are still bad, but pound for pound, the winners are so impressive, we now are nodding sagely. Yes, they're geniuses. Good word.

"Take the Cake: Celebrating the Stranger Genius Awards" was the Henry Gallery's idea, and credit goes to it and the curators it hired for pulling it off: Sara Krajewski in visual art, Lane Czaplinski for theater, Matthew Stadler for literature, Peter Lucas for film and Eric Fredericksen for organizations.

Highlights include (who'd have guessed?) all the writers. Filling every line of 3,345 notebooks in a cramped hand using a quill loaded with "ink developed in Reykjavik with the gall of a eucryphia glutinosa," poet John Olson feels his way into characters, dialogue, room temperatures and the problem of rot in timber.

Novelist Matt Briggs' notebooks are expansive and created to be admired. He wrote them in cafes, hoping someone would look over his shoulder and fall in love with his production. That fictional fan takes form as the audience at the Henry.

Jonathan Raban contributed a tableau of what matters to him, including cigars, a notebook decorated by his daughter, Julia, and a copy of Charles Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend." Half his dreams, said Raban, "take place in Dickens' London."

When she's not writing, says Rebecca Brown, she likes to deface books in the spirit of Joe Orton. The lively tableau of books she has mutilated into art comes with a milk bottle cap that says, "Homo," because she's militantly out there and "hates closeted artists."

Film: Web Crowell's props impersonate sculptures; David Russo redefines the meaning of film; James Longley's short documentary is so beautiful it tears your heart out.

Visual art: Susan Robb gives you her number in seductive neon; Victoria Haven offers a Mylar mountain; and Lead Pencil filmed its ironic tribute to Maryhill Museum, a ghost of the building that has the gall to blight a landscape.

Organization: Greg Lundgren of Vital 5 contributed a form letter he wrote to Henry curator Liz Brown, informing her that he considered her materials but had to decline to exhibit at the Henry, reversing the normal procedure, in which artists get these letters from curators.

The Frye Art Museum flaunts its old and new selves with painted scandals that span centuries. On the Boards made fun of itself in a video, and Seattle School failed to participate, because its idea for selling silence as a commodity didn't materialize.

Theater: Love these theatrics, featuring Jennifer Zeyl, Gabriel Baron, Sarah Rudinoff and Chris Jeffries.

These awards and the parties held in their honor are a rare opportunity for Seattle artists and their audiences to look beyond their individual fields and check each other out. For that alone, the Genius Awards are gifts that keep giving.

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