Opening Nights: Pilot in Peril, Prospero in Pain

PICK: Night Flight

Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., 216-0833, $15–$40. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends June 14.

Depending on what you’re looking for in a theatrical experience, Myra Platt’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1931 novella into an operetta may be a delight or a bore.

The story centers around the pioneers of air mail—pilots, their wives, ground crew, management, etc.—who must conquer their very justifiable fears daily in order to deliver the mail from the South American provinces to Europe. Much of the dialogue is sung to a score composed by Joshua Kohl and performed by Kohl’s period-costume-clad Degenerate Art Ensemble. Reflecting the experimental and industrial spirit of the ’30s, the music riffs on tango, opera, dirges, and French chansons, as well as the mechanical, finger-snapping efficiency of bureaucratic authoritarianism. Some of the “let-me-tell-you-what-I’m-thinking” lines are a bit prosaic, but other songs—particularly the lyrical solos sung by the wives of two pilots—are haunting and beautiful.

Director Platt scored a coup in staging the Deco-era play in the Deco-era Moore Theatre, whose soaring arched proscenium naturally resembles what Saint-Exupéry refers to as “the womb of night,” and allows the pilot Fabien (John Bogar) to be a persistent, visible presence high on a scaffold above the hive of human activity on the stage floor. Geoff Korf’s lighting helps to delineate separate zones of the busy stage as well as advance the plot: A blizzard of bulbs as fickle stars in the stormy sky indicates most of what we need to know about the pilot’s situation. During a community vigil, the ethereal hangar space trembles with candlelight like a cathedral.

At the hub of this fractious human carousel is Riviere, the man responsible for keeping the planes on schedule despite every manner of menace from weather to mechanical failures to his pilots’ simple terror. In John Patrick Lowrie’s graceful performance, we get insight into the way the megalomaniacal Riviere develops his rationale for putting young men in harm’s way.

The show’s considerable charms—including the infusion of some subtle humor where in the novella there was none—are compromised by a couple of unfortunate facts. First, it’s virtually all telling and little showing. The story takes place largely in the heads of the characters, and thus there is little discernible plot between the outbursts of narrative exposition. That’s fine for a novella in which the sensuous metaphorical language can be savored at leisure. In the show, however, we are given a loosely-strung series of tableaux vivants, while the text-faithful language slips by too quickly to be enjoyed.

Second, although there’s no denying the poignancy of that tiny, isolated cockpit with its dim red light amid the infinity of the night sky, because Fabien is wearing glaring goggles most of the time up there, we don’t have a chance to emotionally connect. This blurring of Fabien’s individuality may be in keeping with Saint-Exupéry’s philosophy of quiet, humble, dutiful heroism, but it messes with the audience’s desire to bond on a personal level with the hero. The answer to the question “What price the victory of progress?” is Fabien himself. In live theater, that price needs to be a little dearer to us, especially since dogmatic Riviere pays almost nothing for it. MARGARET FRIEDMAN

PICK: The Tempest

Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, 733-8222, $22–$36. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., plus some Sat. matinees and some Wed. & Sun. evenings. Ends June 28.

George Mount’s production of The Tempest feels like a standard Elizabethan approach, save for a few morbid hints that the play isn’t so much about the power of magic as the power of Prospero’s deathbed imagination. He may be a commanding sorcerer within the confines of his mind, but the occasional beep of a heart monitor or the light of a hospital lamp suggest a man whose feeble body will soon give way to the grave. Viewed from the lens of a dying man, the play is no longer just a whimsical story, but a fantastical dream sequence of Prospero’s unfinished business. To the same degree that reality may be blurred in life’s final moments, Mount has raised the question of reality versus fiction in The Tempest—a fitting choice, given the play’s metatheatrical nature. As Prospero says, “Like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The character certainly has plenty of unfinished business: His brother usurped his dukedom, he’s been banished to an island, and he’s raised his daughter in near-solitude. Yet actor Michael Winters makes clear that vengeance is not forefront in Prospero’s mind. His graceful performance is filled with inner pain, and ultimately he needs to make peace before he can let go once and for all.

Ariel (Hana Lass), living in the servitude of Prospero, is one airy spirit you don’t want to mess with. Lass is not an angry sprite, but a persistent one. Prospero has promised to set Ariel free one day, and her devotion to his mission is at least in part self-motivated. The spirit is supplemented by original music by Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher, who’ve taken their country noir and turned it into a sort of Elizabethan noir. Lass’s indie-folk vocal style is a perfect choice for these tunes, which meld beautifully with the tone of the production.

Ariel’s loyalty to Prospero is matched only by Caliban’s detestation of him. Caliban (Peter Dylan O’Connor) has long been the subject of controversy; he’s consistently identified in The Tempest as “the monster,” though a post-colonial interpretation sees him as a native islander, labeled primitive by his European captors. O’Connor identifies strongly with the latter approach. While many productions put Caliban in rags, O’Connor is in bondage attire. He’s a bitter native, disenfranchised by the entitled Prospero, and he desperately wants his island back.

The production’s technical elements serve Mount’s vision well. Roberta Russell’s lighting design in particular complements the concept with brief moments of lucidity, forcing Prospero back into reality and taking the audience with him. L.B. Morse’s scenic design is flotsam set amid a watery island that seems to envelop the actors. It extends deeper than many theaters have the capacity for, creating plenty of possibilities for stage imagery. It’s a bit disappointing that the depth isn’t used more frequently; not until the end does Mount take full advantage of the space. In that final image of the full ensemble, we see the shadows of a life lived. Prospero sees it too and has his peace. BRENT ARONOWITZ