Opening Nights: Dysfunctional Families, Comic and Otherwise

JFK-era nonconformity and revenge in ancient Rome.

PICK: A Thousand ClownsIntiman Theater, Seattle Center, 269-1900, www.intiman.org. $10–$55. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends June 17.A Thousand Clowns is a play still too young to be conveniently dismissed as history, but the reality it depicts—a Dick Van Dyke era of post-vaudeville humor that predates race riots and women's lib—is a universe away from our reality of wireless connectivity. Just the same, as Intiman's sterling new production soundly demonstrates, some verities remain immutable: Love will generally find a way, children's TV always stinks, and yesterday's deadbeat bum is today's arty slacker.Herb Gardner's text is more than a little dog-eared, and it often requires more effort from both the artists and the audience to imagine grainy life in JFK-era Brooklyn than in FDR's Great Depression or even ancient Rome, perhaps because some of us were alive to live it. Did we really think Father knew best and that Mom should wear a dress and pearls to vacuum like Donna Reed did? These are just some of the cultural assumptions no longer in vogue, and as A Thousand Clowns unfolds, it's apparent how much we've advanced, and how much we've lost, as a society bound by common beliefs.The play revolves around an iconoclastic TV writer named Murray (Matthew Boston), who'd rather collect unemployment than return to penning gags for his former boss, the kids' TV character Chuckles the Chipmunk. Seven years earlier, his sister dumped her five-year-old son Nick (Nick Robinson) in his care and vanished without a trace. With young Nick the more responsible of the two, all's well enough until a pair of nosy social workers arrive to "access the situation." As it turns out, they're a couple, too—the officious Albert (Bradford Farwell, fresh from his turn as Dr. Jekyll at ACT) and his doe-eyed fiancée, Sandra (Julie Jesneck). Murray's casual flippancy (hard to conceive, considering the loss of his ward is at stake) causes the investigators to split right there in the apartment, with Sandra remaining to add a woman's touch and Albert bent on permanently removing the boy from his unhealthy environs.Murray could have a job instantly—which would guarantee that Nick could stay. Sandra has feelings for him, too, so that takes care of the female-companionship issue as well as making a more stable home for the boy. But Murray won't capitulate. Expectations, responsibility, security—they're stultifying to him, and he'd rather do nothing than meet an obligation. Who can afford the luxury of such ego these days? That's where Gardner's words ring most hollow. Surelythere are still people who don'tmind if the state removes their children (and might actually be relieved at the prospect), but that stuff belongs more on an episode of COPS than in a stage comedy. The fact that Murray can crack wise about it makes the play appear even more dated.Director Sari Ketter hacks her way through the thorny underbrush of child desertion by keeping the pace lively and her cast buoyant with New Frontier zeal. Murray'sagent, Arnold (David Pichette), is his brother and mirror image, a responsible sad sack who's made a bed he's happy to sleep in, and Murray's estranged boss, Chuckles/Leo (Tim Hyland), is just a beleaguered mook trying to turn a buck as a giant chipmunk.Sets, sound, and costumes all hit their marks, but ultimately A Thousand Clowns is a show about chemistry. And while Boston and Jesneck are well-suited as romantic leads, the scene-stealer is young Robinson, who lights up the stage and plays a mean ukulele too. His scenes with Boston are the beating heart of Gardner's play, and provide one place where nostalgists and hipsters can agree: Parental love never goes out of style. KEVIN PHINNEYPICK: TitusThe Little Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E.,800-838-3006, www.washingtonensemble.org. $10–$18. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Mon. Ends June 15.This testosterone-laced rumination on Roman revenge and its aftermath is one of Shakespeare's most unrelentingly dire plays. No one emerges unscathed, and when the dust finally settles on Washington Ensemble Theatre's one-act adaptation, all that's left is heartbreak and remorse. On the other hand, it's a quick immersion: At less than two hours, performed by a seasoned cast who've workshopped the show to whipcrack intensity, this is Shakespeare at his most visceral and immediate.In cultivating this show, rather than simply staging it, WET and guest artists from Seattle's Satori Group have carved away extraneous characters, reimagined many of the scenes (the show is set in a modern-looking mausoleum), and dispensed with the buckets of stage blood usually required. Instead, it's a jolting descent through a maze of palace intrigues, betrayals, andbody counts, all done with multimedia and sanguinary substitutes. There's copious abstract footage shown in deep hues of red, unremitting rain, and unearthly sound effects; and when someone is eviscerated, the prop metaphors for blood and viscera are sickeningly sweet.As you might recall, Roman GeneralTitus (Nathan Sorseth) makes a fatal error in returning home victorious: Rather than show mercy to Tamora, the vanquished Queen of the Goths (Montana von Fliss) and sparing the life of her son, Titus decrees he should die so that his departed relatives can rest in peace. She vows revenge, and with the help of a crafty and amoral Moor (Jonathan Hoonhout) she succeeds—first in marrying the newly enthroned emperor Saturninus (Adam Standley), then in systematically dispatching Titus' family, often one body part at a time. When Titus finally decides no longer to suffer her outrages simply because she's married to the emperor, he invites the royals over to a feast where her remaining sons are served up as the entrée. No wonder Sir Anthony Hopkins made sense as the big screen's Titus in 1999: All he needed were some fava beans and a nice chianti.Where co-artistic director Katjana Vadeboncoeur succeeds best with Titus is in coaching her WET ensemble to perform as a single juggernaut. They mourn, they pray, they whisper and roar as if lashed together in a knife fight to the death. There are moments of comedy and passages of great sensuality here, but the play and its players always return, lessons unlearned, to their terrifyingly beautiful ballet of violence. Patrons see shows like this not to be entertained, but to be moved and enlightened, and to contemplate what it means to take a life and at what personal cost one dares do so. KEVIN PHINNEYstage@seattleweekly.com

 
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