King Lear, The Wreck of the St. Nikolai, and Bash.

KING LEAR

Center House Theatre; ends Sun., Feb. 15

Given the right trappings, I'm a sucker for middlebrow Bard. I know I'm supposed to want BBC Hamlets and RSC Macbeths; but if you can get at the soap opera of Shakespeare without making me feel like an idiot, then I'm all yours. Enter John Langs' Lear for Seattle Shakespeare Companya brisk, messy, gaudy, frequently rousing take on the classic.

The textual cuts that keep the show down to a roiling two and a half hours gut the immensity of the monarch's decline. We spend very little time with Lear at his heightsperhaps because Langs knows all the fun is in the fallout. It's not deep, but you can't deny the entertainment value. The streamlined production has a fine clarity to it: When the puffed-up Lear (Kurt Beattie) enters to divide his kingdom between his daughters, it's immediately obvious how much the ensuing tragedy is the result of the family's forced, uncertain affectionsafter Goneril (Amy Thone) finishes her showy tribute to her father, she doesn't even know whether or not she's allowed to hug him. (Sarah Malkin, unfortunately, is painfully out of her depth as Cordelia, the Good Daughter wrongfully denied her father's love. Let's just say you wouldn't want to give her your land, either.)

Langs has a punchy pop aestheticall drums and sneers and blood and thunder, with just enough recognizable humanity. When his cast hooks into it, the production is a stomping good time. Beattie doesn't get to put across enough of Lear's regal pride, but he and Langs make the man's descent touchingly mortal: This king goes mad because he's being treated like a senior citizen. The brittle, blistering Thone and a juicy Stephanie Shinewho plays her sister Regan as a glorified trampdo a trenchant, tag-teaming emasculation of the old man that would send anyone onto the heath. (Thone's Goneril is such a broad that, after the opening ceremony, she pulls off her high heels to rest her tired feet.) And while it's a bit camp and remarkably un-P.C. to posit Oswald, Goneril's henchman, as an effeminate sycophant, the role is deliciously effective in Benjamin Huber's hands. Other touches are novel ideas that just don't take: Langs imagines the Fool (Charles Leggett) as a rumpled, melancholy, song-and-dance bumpicture Beckett doing Singin' in the Rain. Exactly: Ick.

But the show moves, and its poses and pretensions only seem to make it that much more of a diversion. It won't occasion a champagne toast to high art, but it would wash down quite nicely with popcorn and a Mr. Pibb, thank you very much. STEVE WIECKING

THE WRECK OF THE ST. NIKOLAI

On the Boards; ends Sun., Feb. 1

It's an odd footnote in Northwest history: In 1808, a Russian trading ship, the St. Nikolai, ran aground on the Washington coast near what is now La Push. Some of the Russians died, some were taken captive by the Quileute, some barely survived in a hastily built stockade (subsisting on shoes and their mascot dog during one harsh spell). The tragedy is the basis of a wry, evocative, and charming (I wish that word didn't carry a whiff of condescension) theater piece by Curtis Taylor.

Taylor and Eve Cohen are silent stand-ins for the ship's captain, Bulygin, and his wife, Anna, while Erin Durrett and Jack "Yankl" Falk provide their singing voices from stage left. Kyle Hanson and Lori Goldston of the Black Cat Orchestra make up a two-piece pit band, accordion and cello. It's all as low-tech as can be: big, sliding two-dimensional cutout set piecesrocks and ships and doorsmoved around by Taylor and Cohen, who themselves move like hand puppets. The visual style is enlarged pen-and-ink in a trembling handEdward Gorey drawing Peanuts.

Hanson and Goldston weave rich patterns to cushion the singers, tunefully intoning Stacey Levine's text. The lapping of waves seems to be the main musical metaphor; by the endthe show is just under an hourI'd had my fill of gently swaying rhythms in moderate tempo. But the way this score alchemizes with the visuals is remarkable. Together they create an atmosphere so pitch-perfectly Northwestern you can practically smell the evergreens, yet we're taken far beyond the familiar. The show makes a locale that's only an afternoon's drive away seem all at once mythical, forbidding, enchanted, and exotic. GAVIN BORCHERT

BASH

New City Warehouse; ends Sat., Feb. 14

The writer/director who made his film debut in 1997 with In the Company of Men (in which two competitive corporate jerks make sexual sport of a defenseless deaf woman), Neil LaBute gets a lot of easy mileage out of a sort of Murphy's Law school of narrative: In his worldview, anything awful that can happen between adults will happenand then it'll get even worse. Bash, a collection of monologues effectively staged here by New City director John Kazanjian, gives playwright LaBute three more chances to exercise his contemplative misanthropy.

The first monologue finds a businessman (Erik Maahs) attempting to divest himself of guilt following the death of his infant daughter, who suffocated during a nap. It's all got something to do with the oppression of the modern corporate workplace, and it's hyperbolic baloney. Yet it sort of gets you, anyway, even though the diligent Maahs isn't tapping deeply enough into the pernicious trickle of acid running through the character's veinsyou don't feel his latent anger.

Malte Frid-Nielsen, however, gets at that dormant aggression. He and Jenny Greenfield share storytelling duties as a couple of polished young sweethearts relating their romantic trip to the Big City, where Frid-Nielsen's troubled jock kicks in the head of a homosexual he baits in a public rest room. Greenfield is riding the razor's edge of comment on her fembot deb role, but Frid-Nielsen is scorchingly aptthe collegian's beleaguered manhood seems born again recounting the frenzy of violence.

In the final tale, Elizabeth Kenny plays a convict drowsily confessing her crime, the tragic consequence of a teacher's romantic and sexual attentions when she was still just an impressionable teen. Kenny is bang-on in her approach to the role; you wait for her to show offࠬa Charlize Theron's Monster strutbut director Kazanjian keeps a cap on it, and Kenny heads straight for the dashed idealism behind the vengeance of a vaguely unhinged woman.

And LaBute? He's up to his old tricks. He's so ornately corrosive here, so pleased with the little rattles he's put on the end of each coiled remembrance, that you fear where his sympathies may lie. There's more than a little relish in the businessman's revenge against a feminist co-worker; we get to hear every last crunch of the gay-basher's delirium; and the wrath of the once-scorned teenager is so cunningly furious that you almost suspect LaBute thinks her molester was just some poor sap who hit on the wrong schoolgirl. Yet LaBute is such a skilled writer that he makes his kinks a sick thrill for the rest of us. He may not have anything of real value to say about why people do such terrible things to one other, but he makes it impossible to look away while they're doing them. SW

 
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