Opening Nights

Movin' Out

Paramount Theatre; ends Sun., June 20

When I think of the music of Billy Joel, I think of being safe at home in my beanbag. As a child of the '70s, I can't help but equate Joel's output with the comfort of my adolescence at that time—the songs were just expressive enough to suggest the vibrancy of life outside the suburbs and just edgy enough to recommend the benefits of never leaving them. The best of Joel's stuff—"Summer, Highland Falls," say, with its pensive "time for meditation in cathedrals of our own"—taps into a nostalgic, enduringly familiar melancholy, though I'm not sure that I'd consider his oeuvre epic. This puts me at odds, I guess, with Twyla Tharp, who apparently heard enough in the tunes to try to fashion a modern-dance extravaganza out of their sometimes beguiling swagger.

Movin' Out places rousing singer/pianist Darren Holden (Matt Wilson on some nights) and a rowdy band above a stage full of limber dancers gyrating to cover versions of Maestro Billy's musings. Director Tharp has concocted a wordless story line of sorts—something about a group of friends in the '60s, their broken relationships, and the Vietnam War—but the effect mostly resembles those random videos you can't make heads or tails of when you're drunk and watching the karaoke screen in a neighborhood bar. A sincere pas de deux to "Just the Way You Are" must surely be the definition of middlebrow entertainment. Worse, Tharp's attempts to squeeze some depth out of Joel's "heavy" later hits only make their ersatz grit sound even phonier: The Vietnam flashbacks look a bit like the Max Fischer Players from Rushmore invading the set of Solid Gold; no amount of dry ice can turn "We Didn't Start the Fire" into meaningful social commentary.

Is Tharp nuts? Well, if she is, her troupe refuses to acknowledge it. The level of athletic grace from the entire gorgeous ensemble is frequently astonishing—people rush on, leap toward the ceiling, and seem to float for a second or two. As Eddie, the suffering sweetheart introduced in "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," an electrifying Ron Todorowski spends the evening doing what is best described as acrobatic ballet and, man, it sends your heart jumping right up into your throat and keeps it knocking around in there. I don't know what The New York Times' Ben Brantley was smoking when he called this show "a shimmering portrait of an American generation," but if you can get your hands on some of it, hey, live it up while Todorowski and company blow your mind. STEVE WIECKING

Alki

ACT Theatre; ends Sun., June 27

Peer Gynt is a heroic poltroon, a self-made millionaire turned indigent, a world conqueror who winds up back home at square one with nothing but his own soul—and he damn near loses that, too. Ibsen's sprawling six-hour shaggy-dog fable about the down side of 19th-century triumphalism gets a Northwest makeover in this two-and-a-half-hour adaptation by Eric Overmyer, imaginatively directed by Kurt Beattie. A Seattle boy, Overmyer conquered the world himself, first as a verbally prestidigitating playwright, then as a titan of TV crime drama, currently with Law & Order. His Alki is only half successful, but it's vivid, haunting, funny, and acted as brilliantly as much of it is written.

In his greatest stage hit, On the Verge, one of Overmyer's lady Victorian explorers says, "I have seen the future, and it is slang." Alki raises slang to the level of poetry, blending Ibsen's sourpuss idealism, hard-boiled noir's rat-a-tat attitude, and Wild West tall tale tellin'. R. Hamilton Wright carries the unbelievably demanding role of Peer like a plucky ant making off with a shiny apple. At first, he's a sprightly kid, hypnotizing his credulous ma (Beverly Hillbillies–like Marianne Owen) with inspiring lies about his ride on an elk's back through thunderclouds, grabbing a lightning bolt with his bare hands; Wright's delivery of the play's enormous monologues captures much of that lightning.

Peer gets back to pioneer Seattle just in time for the wedding of his ex (Julie Briskman) to a walking Swedish joke named John Johnson (delightfully galumphing Justin Alley). In a series of alternately comic and ponderously symbolic romantic contretemps, Peer spirits the bride past angry townsfolk, seduces and abandons her in the woods, then falls for both the emptily saintly Sally (Mary Jane Gibson, doing all she can in a thankless part) and the sexy, scary Woman in Green (Suzanne Bouchard, whose dimples have never twinkled more prettily nor wickedly).

The fracas scenes in Seattle have a Seven-Brides-for-Twelve-Angry-Men frontier brio, and the Woman in Green's Olympic Peninsula world of Haints (spirits in local Indian lore, Overmyer's translation of Ibsen's Norwegian trolls) are an ideal mix of eerie and silly. Michael Winters has a hobo odor, but also commanding authority, as the King of the Haints. Will Peer drink the elk piss and take the Haint princess for a bride? And is she really as nubile as she seems?

I ain't sayin'. But I will say that Peer's adventures started to lose me after the strong first act. His adventures in Latin America as a diamond buccaneer and slave trader veer inexplicably into episodes of multiple shipwreck, yet another scary temptress, a stint in a madhouse run by a mysterious stranger he's seen before (David Pichette, whose mad eyes blaze with genius), a desperate last attempt to save himself from damnation, and an unintelligibly sentimental reunion with Sally. Overmyer concocts clever parallels between Seattle's ambitious founders and Ibsen's scoundrel robber barons, but it's all too vague, and the plot makes little sense.

To the end, though, Alki is energized by Overmyer's snappy TV wit, sardonic subversiveness, and a pure gift for dialogue. The man is even richer in words than he must be in money. TIM APPELO

Life (X3)

Seattle Public Theater; ends Sat., July 3

Moviegoers are by now familiar with the idea of alternate fates, what with the spate of films revolving around the device of multiple realities assaulting their pitfallen characters. Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day take as their leaping-off point a sense of regret over roads not taken, the underlying implication being that life's infinite possibilities can be sprung ajar on the open horizons of free will. While Yasmina Reza's play utilizes a similar "what if" scenario, it has no pretense of pimping a cosmic rags-to-riches story. Rather than delineating radically different outcomes, the three episodes in Life (X3) differ mostly in intensity, as each character maneuvers a booby-trapped maze of interpersonal decorum and professional politesse. In this comedy of manners, everyone takes a turn behaving badly.

The plot is pure Albee, with two couples gathering for dinner: The husbands are academics on unequal footing; the wives are by turns bitter, loose-lipped and sexually resentful; and the fete is fueled by alcohol and undercut by a combination of anxiety and ambition. As the scene opens, Henri (Galen Joseph Osier) and Sonja (Lisa Viertel) are trying to put their son down for the night when a knock comes at their door—they've mistaken the date, and now Hubert (Terry Edward Moore) and his wife, Ines (Kady Douglas), have arrived for dinner. An already tense situation is amplified when Hubert reveals that his colleague's impending publication on the flatness of cosmic halos may have been scooped. What follows, in each successive episode, is a sort of Freudian meltdown, as one after the other of these characters gives stuttering voice to a storm of half-baked paranoia, sinking suspicion, and burgeoning hope. No one act is more "positive" than the other; it's all a matter of tenor, with repressed emotions bursting to varying degrees.

Nothing about this production, directed by Daniel Wilson, is as supremely disturbing as the battle royal of Albee's George and Martha—there's not that much at stake—but as an investigation of silent and mild desperation in conflict with good manners, this is an excellent comedy, full of surprises and a gently wry empathy for human foibles. RICHARD MORIN

Antony and Cleopatra

Consolidated Works; ends Sun., June 27

I wish I could report that ConWorks finally has a stage offering to match the consistent vitality of its film and visual arts programming, but, damn, vitality is the main thing missing from director John Kaufmann's long, sleepy Shakespeare adaptation.

Everything opens on just the right note, anyway. Jenny Anderson's set is a sort of opulent industrial grotto—like someplace Mad Max might go to bathe and pick up a hooker—and Erin Jorgenson is up above it all knocking out some drowsy, sensual music on the xylophone. We first see Antony (Shawn Law) and Cleopatra (Heather Hughes) rolling around on a water bed talking shop: Kaufmann obviously knows he's dealing with the timeless tussle between affairs of state and . . . affairs.

It doesn't get much more engaging than that first rut, unfortunately. Antony has to marry the mousy Octavia in order to make nice with her brother Caesar, which displeases ol' Cleo to no end, so Antony leaves Octavia, and war breaks out and . . . oh, none of it holds your interest the way it should. Despite Kaufmann's apt use of the characters' sexual appetites, the show is actually rather stuffy and laboriously paced, lacking the juice of romantic political soap opera. Supporting cast members are too convinced of Shakespeare's stature to relax into the fun of it. Even the production's novel quirks become ponderous: An amusingly elaborate bucket-and-pulley set piece designed by Webster Crowell to simulate battles at sea is rolled out at least two times too many.

As Antony, Law has a spark of lusty machismo—and he falls into melancholy rather convincingly—yet Kaufmann hasn't pushed him far enough to get him really strutting. Hughes, meanwhile, has been steered all wrong: I'd gladly watch her vamp, but she spends too much time being furious here; I kept waiting to see the soft, mercurial tigress who is "cunning past man's thought." Any production that makes Heather Hughes seem tiresome is working way too hard. S.W.

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