Opening Nights: A Renaissance Man and an Edwardian Cad

And just who are the puppets?

PICK: Bloody HenrySeattle University, Lee Center for the Arts, 901 12th Ave., 296-2244, briankooser.com. $15. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends Oct. 24.While on balance it may be good to be the king, and while in the popular imagination Henry VIII was as privileged and indulged as kings come (alternately gnawing on colossal drumsticks and shagging almost anything that could be construed as female), some aspects of the royal office apparently weren't so glamorous.The horror of fecundity is the lens through which local puppet impresario Brian Kooser portrays Henry's lewd, shrewd life of procreation and war, gluttony and iconoclastic politics. The pressure to produce a male heir underlies much of the humor and gore of the piece, which is a delight for lovers of history, two- and three-dimensional animation, and multimedia guerrilla storytelling (who don't mind being pelted with bloody, dead baby dolls from time to time).About 60 puppets, including hand, rod, shadow, and gorgeously detailed bunraku types, inhabit a stage of parapets, state chambers, balconies, an elaborate Westminster Abbey, and a boudoir that doubles as a video screen. The silent machinations of busy puppet operators dressed in executioners' black burkas, a bloody red entrance corridor, and programs rolled and ribboned like edicts enhance the atmosphere. The artistry of the puppets contrasts magnificently with their earthier fates: flattery, fellatio, flatulence, and decapitation.It opens with an opening...between the legs of Henry's mother, while our eponymous hero is being born. The suggestive projected silhouette scene (created live each night to variable effect and accompanied by screams and a heartbeat audio) perfectly sets the mood for the gory surprises to come. In this play's world, life is cheap (save for the elusive male heir). Corpses of infants and miscarriages, anonymous soldiers killed in battle and headless enemies of the state all flop over the parapet and land with mortal thuds in a bloody pile at the audience's feet.As Henry burns through wives, dead or otherwise useless (female) spawn, and unfavorable advisors, outside pressures come to bear in densely narrated spurts. Henry's need for marital mobility inspires him to detach the Church of England from Rome; a plague hits; and keeping his counselors and confidants in line proves a full-time job. The dizzying pace of these developments would be irritating if not for the endearingly human moments during which the puppets pause to breathe, give the tiniest naturalistic shudder while leaving a room, shrug fatalistically, sigh almost imperceptibly.Kooser, who got his start in puppetry at Sand Point's Thistle Theatre under Jean Enticknap, creates the bunraku puppets from a foam head covered with papier-mâché. He then surface-sculpts them with Japanese paper clay before sanding and painting them. A few have movable mouths, but most project their expressiveness through dramatic Daumier-like features and nuanced physical gesture.The dialogue runs from schticky cliché to biting wit, and there's a significant measure of redundancy: The six wives start to meld, the dead fetuses thump down predictably, and we lose track of which armies are on top. Time is measured by Henry's expanding girth, gouty limp, increasingly laughable sexual predilections, and difficulty at stool. In a particularly insightful running psychological gag, Henry's dreaded father-in-law curses him from a slit in Catherine of Aragon's (his first wife's) skirt, in a voice reminiscent of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. MARGARET FRIEDMANPICK: TrystGreen Lake Bathhouse, 7312 W. Green Lake Ave. N., 524-1300, seattlepublictheater.org. $17–$25. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 25.George Love is a proud British con artist of the love-'em-and-leave-'em-minus-their-bank-account kind whose latest quarry, a prim millinery seamstress named Adelaide Pinchin, seems so naive, ordinary, and transparent it's a miracle he sees her at all. Karoline Leach's 2006 romantic thriller, like George, preys on those who share the faith that people—both the weak and the strong—are basically decent. Accordingly, this reversal-packed Edwardian pas de deux yields its greatest pleasures when the mouse is on top of the cat.Adelaide (winningly underplayed by Emily Chisholm) narrates her wan, spinsterish existence in a Cockney accent that belies her intelligence and creative potential. Brian Claudio Smith as George cynically explains his seduction and fleecing methods in the Queen's English, or at least some studious social climber's approximation thereof. These alternating His and Hers perspectives entertainingly highlight the pair's divergent goals and sensibilities even as George's scam draws them ever tighter. Exquisite acting keeps our attention on the characters, enabling the simple set to plausibly conjure a dozen locations from hat shop to restaurant to seedy seaside inn.A brooch of questionable value, given to Adelaide by a beloved late aunt, is what draws George to her otherwise dull person. But her secret weapons include blabby, sentimental stories, adamant helpfulness and propriety, and a good-natured determination to cultivate a bond of true friendship with her husband before surrendering her body to him. Her philosophy of card-playing ("I don't mind losing") stymies George, causing him to re-examine his own cutthroat impulses.Guilelessness itself seems like a force of nature in this play, which harkens as much to a Cordelia-like idealization of virtue as to Hitchcockian mind games. Liverpudlian playwright Leach seems to have an affinity for the subject of goodness. She is best known for her 1999 book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: The Myth and Reality of Lewis Carroll, a disputed academic crusade to save the reputation of Alice in Wonderland's author, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, from allegations of pedophilia. For many people those allegations were sad and discomfiting, but for Leach they were apparently intolerable. Similarly in her play, the possibility of George's redemption becomes the obsessive focus of the second act.Placation of a criminal is a high-stakes game, and Adelaide proves her stuff when she finally manages to lure George into her positive fantasy of a shared future. "Things are what we make them," she intones several times, almost like a prescriptive incantation. But can George bear to let be something good? Can Adelaide tolerate his relentless, seemingly involuntary grandiosity and lies? In the interest of not giving too much away, suffice it to repeat: Things are indeed what we make them. MARGARET FRIEDMAN

 
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