The Awakening

Also: Epitaph.

The Awakening

Leo K. Theatre in the Seattle Rep; ends Sun., June 26

Book-It's adaptation of Kate Chopin's 1899 novella is a sometimes ravishingly articulate account of one woman's doomed emancipation that feels like every last ticking minute of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. That's backhanded, I know, but your patience for the latter will have everything to do with your response to the former. The Awakening sags beautifully, and if you're not one for drooping in respect, you won't find its estimable accomplishments worth its languid loveliness.

Oh, but it is lovely. The blues and whites of Brian Healy's lighting design wash across the warm simplicity of Greg Carter's set and Harmony Arnold's rich period costumes in a way that captures the hushed wonder and worry of Chopin's heroine. Myra Platt, who conceived this imaginative interpretation with director Jane Jones and adapter Rebecca Chace, brings a sunny authority to her duties in the lead role, and the befuddled, gradually unravelling gaiety that she finds beneath her character's sorrow provides mooring for the show's drifting experiments in theatrical invention.

Edna Pontellier (Platt) is a married Louisiana mother near the end of the 19th century who rather inconveniently begins "to recognize her position in the universe as a human being" during a summer vacation on the shore. She'd been afraid of the water, but is slowly learning to swim, with the help of Robert LeBrun (Hans Altwies), the handsome, starry-eyed son of the resort's proprietress (Marty Mukhalian). The metaphor extends to Edna's personal life. Though we don't ever meet her children, the comfort and safety they and her businessman husband, Leonce (Kevin McKeon), once provided are clearly no longer as necessary once she begins to wade into the tingling suggestions of another, freer life.

This was heady stuff in 1899, and that it still has the ability to tug at your soul is credit not only to Chopin's brave, ageless compassion but to the artistry with which Platt, director Jones, and the entire company tap into it. Using compositions by Platt herself, the production turns most of the book's narrative passages into a mélange of New Orleans–style musical numbers. It's an effective way to contrast Edna's outer and inner lives: A large, clamorous dinner party discussing Robert's imminent departure becomes a mini- operetta with Edna wilting at its center.

Such ingeniousness is cunning but eventually a bit cold and a bit much (Cynthia Geary and Edd Key are around to play the Female and Male Voice of the Sea, respectively, if that gives you any idea). There are too many numbers and too much you'd rather get on with. When Act 2 opens with a sexy, fantasy spiritual set around Edna stomping on her wedding ring, you can admire it and still think that all it's really doing is adding a lot of extra padding to what was once perfectly slender source material.

Besides, it's the quieter stuff that drives the show. It's heartbreaking when Edna nearly implodes during the reveries of a piano solo at a social gathering, and the palpable heat between Platt and Altwies is memorable. Their unencumbered moments of lazy afternoon reflection have an erotic shimmer; a bit with Edna lounging on a hammock and Robert gazing down at her is a picture-perfect encapsulation of unrequited longing. Equally fine are scenes with Edna and her surly, unconventional comrade Mademoiselle Reisz (Lori Larsen, perfectly cast, though Jones allows her delivery to be more anachronistic than it should be, just as she at times encourages Altwies toward an unlikely pluckiness). There is also a long, beautiful, bristling silence that Jones captures in another hammock bit between Edna and, this time, a stolid Leonce. (McKeon's performance has commendable balance. He never strays too far in either direction that would make him anything less than a man of his time.)

Alas, the enervating aesthetic playfulness continues until Edna takes her final swim out to sea. That climactic swim, with the ensemble lifting Platt above their heads, takes your breath away. It would've had me jumping to my feet if it had only come 45 minutes sooner.

Epitaph

Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse; ends Sun., June 12

It isn't usually a compliment to maintain that a production descends into silliness, but the deranged descent of Adrian Wenner and Ethan Sandler's two-man, 60-minute sketch provides some of this season's most refreshing comic highs. Though nominally about the competitive grief of two would-be suitors over the death of a shared beloved, Epitaph continues to sink through layer after layer of random, riotous invention before wrapping up with a rocking ukulele solo over her tombstone. The show begins with a frustrated minister dealing with the customer service of his local cable company and very quickly finds its way down to a violent bar brawl between an aggressive prescription nonsmoking aid and the drunk, whorish embodiment of nicotine.

Cory (Wenner) and Warren (Sandler) both loved the elusive Georgia, so much so that at her funeral, Warren plays the last answering-machine message he received from her and Cory whips out his guitar to pluck the one chord he's mastered of his unfinished tribute song. Cory knew Georgia from college, where she was also the fixation of a poor sod inexplicably inspired to stand under her window dressed as an apple tree. Warren knew Georgia from work, where she earned the devotion of a delivery guy obsessed with movie quotes. Hearts break everywhere when she dies, but both Cory and Warren are intent on claiming the greater damage.

You have no way of guessing what co-writers Wenner and Sandler make of such a foundation, and describing it too much will give away its absurd pleasures. Let's just say that it has an improvisatory kick, is full of goofy names and funny noises, and hurls itself onto weird, wonderfully tiny tangents that have little or nothing to do with the matter at hand: An insistent waiter who mistakenly thinks he went to school with Warren asks him to repeat the word "bottle" just to make sure he's wrong; Cory hallucinates a meeting with the orange mascot of his aforementioned prescription drug, who then furiously insists that Cory use the money he's saved on cigarettes to buy a pottery wheel; Cory's doctor brags of an encounter with a bagel-less indigenous tribe that nonetheless invented the bagel slicer ("Lightning in a bottle, I guess," he shrugs).

Director Betsy Thomas has the craft to keep the actors' singular manias in serene complement, rather than letting them throttle the enjoyment out of the evening by pitting their energies against one another in some kind of frantic, exhausting one-upmanship. Chicagoan Wenner has a placid hilarity pitched perfectly to the robust buffoonery of Northwest native Sandler. The performers are at play but buzzing on audience feedback; they're amusing each other without leaving us out of the game. If you wanted to reach, you could say these guys have found an unusually deft way of communicating the wild, arbitrary melancholy of living that links each one of us to every other loser on the planet. But, nah, just go and laugh.

 
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