Our Town

Also: Rhinoceros and Rigoletto.

Our Town

Intiman Theatre; ends Sat., Nov. 20

Thornton Wilder's sweet-and-sour, Pulitzer-winning slice of epiphanic Americana is all about the little things—the moments when we're so busy living that we never stop to embrace them. What a pleasure it is to report that director Bartlett Sher's production stops to embrace them all. Every scene of his artful, meticulous staging has a hushed fullness about it that suggests several layers of bristling human emotion; there are moments within moments. The show can send you off on a private contemplation of everything from gay marriage to the war in Iraq. Sher's attention to Wilder's calmly tumultuous subtext serves as both a perfect introduction to the play and an urgent reawakening for anyone who thought they were over it.

If you've somehow managed to either forget or escape this classic, you should know it's just three acts in the life of Grover's Corners, N.H., round about the turn of the 20th century. A Stage Manager (Tom Skerritt) walks us across an empty stage that Wilder's often wounded reveries fill with life. Sher is at the top of his game with such an opportunity, and you'll leave the theater with several of his images still sparkling in your mind: eager young Emily Webb (Celia Keenan-Bolger) at the top of the ladder that serves as her second-story bedroom, pensive and hopeful in a forest of stars; the fragile loveliness of her wedding to earnest George Gibbs (Joaquín Torres); the stillness of her funeral; and the string of constellations that descend to the stage floor at play's end.

Such visual richness—aided by the troubled serenity of Christopher Akerlind's lighting—is matched by the company. Torres is right on the edge of overdoing George's effusiveness, and Lisa Li is a smidge stony as his mother, but no one in the ensemble misses how much this all means. Veteran Jeanne Paulsen gives one of her best performances as Mrs. Webb; you can sense in her every silence her awareness that Emily will one day be gone. Keenan-Bolger is right there with her, in touching frustration. Even throwaway lines—Allen Gilmore's Mr. Webb casually asking Emily, "Haven't any trouble on your mind, have you?"—sound believably weighted with a delicate concern. Larry Paulsen's despairing drunkard, Simon Stimson, moaning from the dead, is filled with a palpable regret.

Skerritt's Stage Manager is another matter. On opening night, it seemed as though he could use a stage manager himself—to discreetly whisper a few of his lines from the wings. His hesitancy, the way he hangs back on delivery, can be as much a distraction as his (necessary?) body mike. But in his best moments, his deceptive ease works to bring out an edge in Wilder's humor and keep things from slipping too far into the folksy sentiment for which the play is wrongly remembered. He can toss off a line and hit it at the same time; a comment like, "This is scenery—for those of you who need scenery," sounds wonderfully wry in his hands, to say nothing of the prickly resonance he and Sher get from the moment we're informed that the town's tiny paperboy "was gonna be a big engineer, he was" before World War I ended his life.

I suppose someone who has lost affection for Sher's substantial idiosyncrasies won't much fall for the show because, of course, they're all here: the lack of props, the meaningfully open spaces, the pristine, processionlike blocking, the back wall of the theater. And, OK, maybe the director's exactitude, however luscious, keeps you sighing in admiration more than sobbing in sympathy (though it makes me feel like one of those yahoos who complains about Meryl Streep's facility with accents to say it).

Mostly, though, you wonder why it took Sher so long to come to a script that was made for his particular artistry—his unforced multicultural casting here is just one piece of an aesthetic that quietly meshes with the playwright. Sher's feeling for timelessness meets Wilder's insistence on the crushing eternity of daily life. STEVE WIECKING

Rhinoceros

Capitol Hill Arts Center; ends Sat., Nov. 6

God, you should hear that first rhino come stomping and snorting through Café Epicerie, sending everyone scurrying. The folks at CHAC certainly have one hell of a sound system; crystal-clear, stentorian, and stereophonic, each approaching pachyderm has you looking anxiously over your shoulder, grabbing your jacket for a quick dash to the fire exit. Yet sound is the least of the pleasures in this production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist meditation.

If ever there were a play difficult to encapsulate, this is it. The only thing monolithic about Rhinoceros is its wildlife. Ionesco's concerns here range from existential funk to sociological transformation, and the end product is equal parts slapstick, Beckett, Planet of the Apes, and Hamlet. In a nutshell, everyone begins turning into rhinos, and as the population of "normal" folk shrinks, we chart their turmoil—to take the horn or not, that is the question.

The central relationship is that between Berenger (Wayne Rawley) and Jean (James Cowan). The former is a good-hearted dipsomaniac with a serious case of the identity heebie-jeebies; the latter, a bitter and proud fop whose hubris skirts absolute misanthropy. Among the uniformly excellent cast, Rawley and Cowan throw in with two of the finest performances of the year. Cowan is flat-out pitch perfect, and his transformation scene is a tour-de-force, creepy and hilarious. Rawley is an odd one: At first his performance seems one-dimensional and distracted, but as the play progresses, he veritably takes off, proving himself a strong comic actor fully capable of telegraphing Berenger's moral conundrum with subtlety and bittersweet sadness. Also top-notch are Frank Lawler, Tim Barr, Rebecca Goldberg, Aimee Bruneau, Basil Harris, Katie McKee, and Karen Gruber, most of whom tackle multiple roles. All throw themselves completely into the controlled chaos of this work, and the results are stunning.

Perhaps most deserving of praise is director John Farrage himself. He has taken on a difficult piece of theater, and availed himself with utmost professionalism without tamping one iota the passion he obviously feels for Ionesco's tangled intent. If humanism, as Jean claims, is indeed washed up, it sure is a gorgeous collapse. Bring on the rhinos. RICHARD MORIN

Rigoletto

McCaw Hall; ends Sun., Oct. 31

As Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins points out in a program-book essay for their new production of Rigoletto, the fact that Verdi's 1851 opera nominally takes place in the 16th century is barely relevant to the plot. It would be hard to argue that Rigoletto is about Renaissance Italy in the same way that, for example, The Marriage of Figaro is about the mores and social structure of 18th-century Spain. So Jenkins and director Linda Brovsky felt no qualms about freshening up this chestnut by moving the action forward to the 1930s, complete with cocktail shakers, marcelled hair, and grim fascist imagery.

It makes for a wonderfully handsome and absorbing production. The title role is a famously challenging baritone showpiece, encompassing pathos, rage, tenderness, manic anguish, even comedy—rare for Verdi, the consummate operatic tragedian. Kim Josephson's hall-filling voice managed it all. In his most triumphant scene, his Act II lament over the kidnapping of his daughter, he shifts from choked breathlessness to ardent, arching lyricism just as his mood shifts from anger to pleading. Frank Lopardo, as the caddish Duke of Mantua, looks and sounds exactly like what you imagine when you hear the phrase "Italian tenor," except he can act. The very effortlessness and gorgeousness of his voice suggests his character's untroubled self-indulgence. There's something of a Mafioso in his portrayal; under the charm and the trappings of wealth lies the heart of a thug.

Two brief but telling roles were particular eye-openers: Perry L. Brown and Mary Ann McCormick as the assassin Sparafucile and his sister/accomplice Maddalena. Brown was imposing and compellingly watchable in the sort of way that makes you feel almost complicit in his character's evil; McCormick's Maddalena was a ripe-busted platinum blonde à la Jayne Mansfield with a dusky, seductive, violalike quality to her voice. Some company ought to build a Carmen around her.

Which leaves Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter and the Duke's conquest: the one morally unambiguous principal character, and consequently the least interesting, even (or maybe this is just me) the least sympathetic. Norah Amsellem was valiant in making this lace bonnet of a role into a human being we can actually care about. Her ringing soprano comes with a very opulent vibrato—and with the vocal tic that often accompanies it, the habit of hitting a big note a shade off pitch and then finessing it into place. The impressive focus and control of her pianissimo singing stood her in good stead during her death scene. All in all, this Rigoletto is probably the most strongly sung Seattle Opera production in some time—almost as if Seattle Opera were launching a pre-emptive strike against opera purists who bristle at updating. GAVIN BORCHERT

 
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