Waiting for Lefty

Also: Love's Labours Lost and Manon Lescaut.

Waiting for Lefty

Capitol Hill Arts Center; ends Sat., Feb. 12

It shouldn't work, if you're going to be honest about it. Clifford Odets' 1935 Group Theatre hammering-the-nail-square-on-the-head commie propaganda play ("Lefty," Clifford? Had you no desire for nuance?) has been remounted for Dubya's tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free in an industriously sincere fringe theater on Capitol Hill. And in director Sheila Daniels' staging, there's some down-on-his-luck Joe lying with an empty tin cup before the production even begins—a conceit that, nine times out of 10, usually means you're in for a rough night of experimental gumption. Here's great news then, you cynical bastards: Daniels pulls it off.

There are any number of ways she could have crushed her own best intentions, and some of them are here, all right. Odets' piece is essentially a call to arms, the story of a group of desperate taxi drivers deciding whether to unionize in the face of violent oppression, and on the surface, Lefty plays like a punchy, hard-boiled, '30s B movie. A few in Daniels' company find their tongues caught on the crackling "dis an' dat an' dem"s so beloved by Odets in his man-of-the-people mode, and to top it off, she's got them breaking up scene changes by raging through Depression period tunes like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" or coyly cooing ironic ditties such as "Pennies From Heaven."

What makes such obviousness fly, though, is Daniels' commendable ability to ground the work in the alternately dreamy and distressed emotions that inspired such sentiments of the era in the first place. The crowd scenes at the strike meeting have real meat to them; the surly, hollering, foot-stomping unrest feels not showy but authentic. The breakaway scenes that flow into and out of the cabbies' protest—wrenching two-person dramas that highlight the human toll of Big Business tyranny— work even better: Jená Cane, playing a downtrodden wife with a face that Dorothea Lange would surely have photographed, urges her fretful husband (Peter Dylan O'Connor) to strike but screams, "I'm not God!" when he worries whether it's the right choice; a benevolent but tart-tongued stenographer (Laurie Johnson, handling Odets' vernacular like a pro) quietly offers a buck to a starving actor (Garlyn Punao); Kate Czajkowski and Troy Fischnaller stirringly enact the destruction of a starry-eyed young couple forced to face the notion that finances might keep them apart. These and other moments are filled with believably fraught silences and aching indecision, ferocious attempts to cling to an evasive sense of hope or happiness.

While Daniels cannot—and wisely does not attempt to—downplay Odets' unsubtle leftist fury, her ensemble is so committed to the irrefutable humanity beneath the rhetoric that the production never feels like it's preaching to the choir so much as reminding any interested voices of the words that used to make us sing. STEVE WIECKING

Love's Labours Lost

Center House Theatre; ends Sun., Feb. 13

Not to be crude, but the labor that's lost in Shakespeare's play isn't just wasted on love. 'Tis country matters that loom large here (or perhaps one should say loom low), along with issues priapic and other turgid biological concerns. If there's a single theme, it may well be "gettin' laid"—the jolt of temptation, the rush of the hunt, the frustration of denial, and all that talk (or, as one character puts it, "the sweet smoke of rhetoric"). The dialogue itself, precoital and wry, ranges from the swooningly seductive to the witty, battle-of-the-sexes repartee that forms the backbone of so much romantic comedy.

Perhaps taking a cue from the relative noncomplexity of this early work—in which the King of Navarre and his lords sequester themselves for three years of academic study only to be tempted by some saucy French chicks—director Aaron Levin strips everything down to the bare bones for his Seattle Shakespeare Company production, setting the action amid a few Doric columns and giving the actors space to play. And play they do, vamping and winking and generally milking the material for its broadest reach of sexual farce. It's not the only direction you can take this piece, but it mostly works. The result is a delightfully brisk comedy that resides somewhere between the bawdy pratfalls of Mel Brooks and Mike Nichols at his most carnally knowledgeable.

The trick in getting a bird like this to fly, interpretively speaking, is selling the levity to the actors, and the cast indeed cuts loose, obviously having a lot of fun with the dramatic license. Of particular note is Scott Coopwood, a Portland-based actor making his SSC debut as Armando. With his booming baritone, bright bald pate, and spot-on comic timing, he takes the role of the lovelorn Spaniard for a wildly captivating joy ride, giving a deceptively disciplined comic performance that would have a lesser actor careening into Monty Python–esque flapjaw. Coopwood sets the tone of the play—confident, happy, almost carefree. As Armando's sidekick, Moth, 12-year-old Max Piscioneri also displays loads of talent and maturity in a demanding role.

The only real drawback to this production is the weirdly negligible gesture of setting it in "the autumn of 1905, a time of optimism and gaiety." Besides the costumes and my press kit, there's nothing to indicate the era, much less the historical significance, of this move. It doesn't have to be Richard III among the Blackshirts, or Romeo and Juliet in gangbanging L.A., but if you're going to time travel, take the leap. After all, it's only sex. RICHARD MORIN

Manon Lescaut

McCaw Hall; ends Sat., Jan. 29

A soprano embraces her tenor fervently, then tilts back her exquisitely coiffed head and sends a "Io t'amo!" soaring to the top balcony on a high B-flat. The art of opera is founded largely on music's ability to portray romantic love convincingly. But is music—and more importantly, a singer's way with it—subtle enough to illustrate the difference between true love and pretended love? That question is part of what makes, for example, Cosi fan tutte, Mozart's change-partners-and-dance comedy, so eternally rewarding and interesting. It's also at the heart of Carol Vaness' perfectly absorbing portrayal of the title character in Puccini's Manon—she loves the young student Des Grieux, or claims to, but also loves the wealth and comfort of life with the elderly Geronte.

In voice as well as manner, Vaness seems to be able to add or remove a thin veil of falsity to whatever Manon sings, according to whatever this shallow, manipulative young woman needs at the moment. Whether or not she can ever be trusted generates considerable dramatic tension: Even in the last act, after Geronte has had her arrested and deported to America, you could still, if you cared to, hear a woman trying desperately to convince herself that she really always did love Des Grieux—now that her life depends on him. By the very end, she's delirious, and finally can't tell reality from fantasy, anyway. We all know villains don't need to be likable to be fascinating; it was the young Puccini's genius and daring (this was his third opera and first success, premiered when he was 34) that he tried out this approach on his heroine.

Vaness' is the kind of soprano voice that sounds as if it's simply let loose, ranging from gleaming silver high notes to cellolike throatiness at the bottom—a welcome color contrast, since Manon is the only major female role in the opera. As Des Grieux, Jay Hunter Morris offered a tenor of slightly baritonal color and weight, which he used with great, unself-conscious élan and dramatic conviction. The suavest voice onstage was Earle Patriarco's, in the role of Manon's sly louse of a brother. The choir sings and acts with relish.

This is a lavish, traditionalist production, with storybook sets and costumes by Michel Beaulac and director Bernard Uzan—Seattle Opera is throwing a bone to its most conservative patrons. It's a big, hot-blooded slab of melodrama, rescued from kitsch by Vaness' insinuating performance and Morris' ardent, earnest one. GAVIN BORCHERT

 
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