A LIE OF THE MIND

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7676. $10-$35. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Feb.

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Brief Encounters

A LIE OF THE MIND

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7676. $10-$35. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Feb. 23.

Sam Shepard's star has sunk since his '80s heyday, and this 1985 play now appears to be a low point. The women seem to have drifted mistily in from Williams and O'Neill works, like characters in an SCTV double-pastiche satire—the manly, manful men are shtick figures, the symbolism overripe, the epic tone overreaching. Whenever Sam was inarticulate, which was usually, we used to swoon about how deep he was; now it's clear that his mind was mud and his eloquence limited (and they say he spoke so little in Days of Heaven because he couldn't memorize his lines).

Yet director Robin Lynn Smith makes a fairly sturdy show from faded material. Jake and Beth are having marital problems—he thinks he's killed her, though she's only brain-damaged. Each goes home to Mom, his in California, hers in Montana. Gradually, we find out each family's mad past and madder present, a litany of murder, denial, sibling rivalry, smothering mothering, and menfolk with no safety on either their hunting rifles or their Wild West emotions.

The broody, American rootsy music by Mark Nichols and Walkabouts star Carla Torgerson impressively sets the mood—I'd buy the CD—and the cast hits most of the play's tragical-comical-historical-pastoral marks. As Beth's trigger-happy papa, Winston J. Rocha reminds me of Ruben Sierra playing God in Steambath: He can be silly yet sinister. Kate Wisniewski has the right twangy growl as Jake's man-bashing mom. It's hard to keep Shepard's dialogue from lapsing into a bunch of monologues, an effect intensified when the actors keep stepping on each others' lines. But this production will get smoother with performance, and remains a significant effort. TIM APPELO

VIC: SPIRIT MADE FLESH

Open Circle Theater, 429 Boren Ave. N., 206-325-6500. $15. Pay-what-you-will every Thurs.

8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. Ends Sat., March 1.

Writer/performer Maria Glanz's play about Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 was the first woman to run for U.S. president, captures how wondrously anarchic Victoria's emancipation was. A much married, sexually liberated woman, Woodhull battled the same hypocrisy that continues to destroy the supposed freedoms of American public life ("I will not run a country from a darkened bedroom," she says, under attack).

The script's conceit is a little tired—from her deathbed, Victoria slips into re-enactments of past deeds—though saved somewhat by Glanz's scrupulousness. She never shies away from the fact that the complex Woodhull was also an exasperating egomaniac. And there is a welcome (and much-needed) sense of play in Glanz's approach: At the appearance of Rev. Henry Beecher (Lyam White), a man who publicly reviled Woodhull's free-love advocacy while privately cheating on his wife, Victoria rages, "This is my story, and I don't want that asshole in it!"

Yet Glanz's convulsing, incantatory monologues have a sameness that starts to push your tolerance. Alyssa Keene is subtler and more convincing as Victoria's frustrated yet devoted sister, Tennie, but all of the other supporting characters are done up as scowling cartoons. The show's biggest detriment is the self-awareness that has dogged much of Glanz's solo work, which director Elizabeth Klobe further encourages. With the ensemble doubling as a carefully choreographed spirit choir, the production too palpably knows every second what it's going to do next and lacks the spark of spontaneous life it needs to fully engage us. STEVE WIECKING

THE PRODUCERS

Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., 206-292-ARTS. $26-$67. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun. Also 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., Feb. 16.

No wonder Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his classic 1968 film has completely bowled over audiences. The frantic, brassy show's shtick is so relentless and carefree that you let it work even when, sometimes, it doesn't.

The story is the same: Max Bialystock (Lewis J. Stadlen), a hack Broadway producer in the '50s, talks his mousy accountant Leo Bloom (Don Stephenson) into helping him bilk investors with an offensive, surefire flop—a sympathetic musical about the Fhrer—that will leave the pair with a million dollars in oversold stock. This touring production looks fantastic, though it's missing the big personas of its original Broadway stars. Old pro Stadlen starts to fly once he shrugs off the looming shadow of Tony-winning Nathan Lane, but Stephenson never breaks out of a cloying Matthew Broderick impersonation.

Doesn't matter. Determinedly lowbrow, foul-mouthed, and politically incorrect composer/lyricist Brooks brings his delicious sense of comic free-for-all to the proceedings; in a brief, parodic nod to Showboat, he has a mournful black accountant soloing, "Oh, I debits all de mornin'. . . . " And the movie's famous "Springtime for Hitler" number is actually even funnier here. Director/choreographer Susan Schulman's deft contributions can also not be overrated. The show really moves and keeps tossing rousingly ingenious bits of staging at you—chorus girls pop out of file cabinets, and warbling pigeons form a backup choir.

No, it's not the greatest show Broadway has ever known, but it sure feels like it might be while you're watching it. SW

ALL THE GREAT BOOKS

ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7666. $30-$35. 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinee Sun. Ends Sun., March 2.

You may have seen the shameless antics of the Reduced Shakespeare Company on PBS. Now, behold them in person as they attempt to sum up and upend the rest of Western literature in one night onstage at ACT. It's like the burning of the library at Alexandria, only done with funny hats and corny jokes.

Here's the gimmick: The audience is a high-school remedial-lit class; you need to learn this stuff fast to graduate; three clowns—Coach (Reed Martin), Professor (Michael Faulkner), and Matt the Student Teacher (Matthew Croke)—put your mind in hyperdrive. The set is just like the Shakespeare one on TV, basically just a backdrop with two arched entrances so the guys can chase each other and emerge in new costumes, the Trojan horse can peek out at you unexpectedly, and two guys impaled on the same arrow can get stuck against the doorway. The dumb gags are dang good (Coach studied clowning at Barnum & Bailey, no joke), but it's easier to make fun of Shakespeare, whose stories we know and whose verse provides a structure for reductive tomfoolery, than it is the other great books. Here, it's mostly limericks. The best bit is the stomping of The Odyssey, which affords structure; the worst is a meandering Ulysses. The laughs were outright, if not prolonged. TA

 
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