Brief Encounters

HARD TIMES

Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-325-6500. $19-$22. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Sun., April 6.

Since his elaborately drawn characters are so theatrical to begin with, adapting Dickens to the stage may seem simple enough. But his grand structure of reversals and revelations is difficult to transfer without bloating. In many ways, Book-It's Hard Times avoids most of the pitfalls of adaptation by performing the narration along with the dialogue: It cuts down on the middlemanwhatever we may think of the result, the result is still Dickens.

It makes sense, then, that your degree of enjoyment depends almost entirely on how much you like Hard Times the novel. As adapted and directed by Julie Beckman, Hard Times succeeds as a lavish 19th-century melodrama, complete with accordion music, and Dickens' less restrained impulses fit perfectly with the rest of the show. The result, like the novel itself, is awfully long; but it's so fluid and ingenious, you might not mind.

The best reason to see it is actor David Quicksallfirst as a lisping circus master, then as a cynical dandywho is somehow cartoonish and deeply human at the same time. And Marty Mukhalian is downright diabolical as Mrs. Sparsit, a black-clad Victorian spinster who, in the play's funniest scene, makes elaborate and hilarious use of her hoopskirts. They and the company comprise a core of talent that keeps Hard Times going until the long-awaited, and truly touching, conclusion. CHRIS JENSEN

ROMEO AND JULIET

Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center,206-443-2222. $10-$46. 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun.;2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., April 20.

Director Sharon Ott's dumbed-down take on the tale of two young lovers with really bad timing comes complete with a bare butt, some guns, and a prologue featuring two guerrilla warriors in modern-day combat gear dueling in slo-mocuz it's timeless, see? This is popcorn Shakespeare, and there are worse things than that, but Ott's classics lite staging is sorely missing meat in its diet.

Scenic designer Ralph Funicello's enormous set of spinning castles is fairly stunning, but it simply emphasizes the dramatic space in the play that Ott doesn't fill. Tom Story's feline, flaming Mercutio is an engaging touch until it's obvious that he's prancing without purpose. And turning the famous balcony scene into a comical ode to awkward young love may seem like a novel idea (it's the first time, and hopefully the last, that "What light through yonder window breaks?" is a real belly laugh), but it guts the lovers' confessions of all their dizzying momentousness. Their affair seems like a sweet, lukewarm crush"too flattering sweet," in Romeo's own words, "to be substantial." Cynthia Boorujy's Juliet is OK, though James Ginty has little to offer as Romeo except some ever-outstretched arms and that rather fetching backside. Laura Kenny's boisterous bit as Juliet's self-appointed protector is so overwhelming in these circumstances that the production may as well be subtitled A Nurse's Own Story.

When the slain bodies of Mercutio and Tybalt (a seething Hans Altweis) are dragged onstage in Act I, and the respective families gather on each side to howl for blood, it's the one time you can feel the ageless emotions in a play made otherwise topical and glib. STEVE WIECKING

THIS IS OUR YOUTH

UW Ethnic Cultural Theatre, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., 206-634-4288. $7-$10. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.;2 p.m. matinee Sun. Ends Sun., March 23.

Kenneth Lonergan's funny, unforced attentiveness to the melancholy beneath everyday language has the power to save American theater from its sometimes stilted pretenses. This appropriately youthful production, though inexpert, has a nice sense of how important that gift is.

Dennis and Warren are two frustrated rich kids in an '80s Upper West Side N.Y.C. Callow Warren has just stolen $15,000 from his inattentive dad. Bad boy Dennis, living in an expensive hovel financed by his parents, suggests they blow it all on blow, which they can resell for a tidy profit. What happens next is not, thankfully, another drug deal gone awry but a look at average human beings who would give anything to find something of value in an indifferent world.

Andy Kidd is an attractive guy, but he lacks Dennis' casual, grungy je ne sais quoihe doesn't slack convincingly. As Warren, baby-faced Tim Liese fares better as a boy who would love to be a man, if anyone would bother to help him; his stop-and-go relationship with lost girl Jessica (a touching Emily Cedergreen) is the production at its best.

Director Tommy Smith has trouble shaping Lonergan's seeming laissez-faire, but he understands what makes it tick. (Though he overdoes the cloaked affection between the embattled young menwhenever they wrestle, it seems a little too much like love is in the air). Smith knows when to hang back and let Lonergan's characters talk, trusting that the drama will be revealed by the words they choose to hide their pain. By the show's end, its title has a double meaningboth the lament of its kids and a compassionate wake-up call from its playwright, telling us we'd better listen. S.W.

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