The ruling crass

If the truth be told, a lot of artists wish that our contemporary theater was more difficult and dangerous. Who hasn't read of the riots at the opening of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, or Beckett's battles with Britain's Lord Chamberlain, and not wished that the social stakes were still as high? Most theaters today seem more concerned with keeping their audiences awake and amused than pushing the envelope of what's permissible.

The Naked King

Open Circle Theater, 382-4250

ends December 19

In a funny way, Open Circle's The Naked King, like its two previous productions of plays by Soviet playwright Eugene Schwartz, is nostalgic for the bad old days. Schwartz wrote "fairy tales for grown-ups" at a time when the Soviet authorities under Stalin strongly discouraged the use of fantasy. In fact, this play wasn't produced till 1960, two years after Schwartz's death; apparently even the unimaginative censors realized that a play about a ruler who's a foolish bully clothed in invisible finery was potentially subversive.

Open Circle has gone outside the company for a director for the first time: Seattle veteran Lisa Anne Glomb. Her past projects (Fortinbras and Star Drek for AHA! Theater and her own Plan 9 from Outer Space) have demonstrated her talent for big-cast, colorful comedies with the occasional musical number thrown in. As with those shows, her greatest virtue here is to allow ample space for the actors to frolic without ever letting the show's pace slacken.

By setting the play in a Berlin Opera House in 1935 (I needed the program note to tell me this, despite the rich but faded glories of Jason Dittmer's costume and set designs), Glomb makes the play's very performance a subversive activity. The actors begin the play by entering as if to clean the place, each armed with brush or broom, and working out the dust from the stage, the curtains, the scenery. When they hear sounds from outside (doors closing? explosions? gunshots?) all work stops and they stand like frightened mice. It's only when they seem certain that no one is approaching that they can begin their story.

Schwartz's play mixes up a couple of well-known fairy tales with his own inventions. Our heroes are the swineherd Heinrich (Dan Dennis), who despite his lowly station has fallen in love with a Princess (Susan McIntyre), and his faithful and inventive buddy Christian (Skot Kurruk). When the Princess proves more than agreeable to his courtship (indeed, McIntyre plays her as sweet but downright lustful), her brute of a father has her sent off to a neighboring kingdom to marry the monstrous ruler (Ron Sandahl, huge but with a high sinister giggle). The resourceful trio must now outwit two kings, several bodyguards, and the slimy Minister of Tender Feelings, who checks up on the Princess's "character" by hiding a pea under her mountainous featherbed. (As the Minister, Basil Harris is curved into a perpetual question mark through his constant lurking and skulking.)

Schwartz's narrative suffers from a few fits and starts. A couple of times our heroes are so resourceful that the play is as good as over, until the playwright can come up with another delay. But a happy ending is only to be expected, so in the meantime we're offered such pleasures as Jason Dittmer's Fool for the King, who's clearly got the most stressful job in the country (his sad little vaudevillian half-step before each joke is glorious), Morgan Rowe's Bullwinkle-inspired Mayor, and Christine White and Sean Egon's pair of Royal Bodyguards who are equal parts Brothers Grimm and Charles Addams. Scott House and Eric Salamon's plinky score is a playful mixture of drinking songs and German cabaret, supportive of the drama while stopping just short of turning the show into a full-blown musical.

Despite some occasional visual cues (the Naked King, for example, sports a branched insignia a couple of breaks off from a swastika), not a lot of the play's political satire is particularly wounding. This is partly due to the writing, and also because Glomb's pace simply doesn't allow us much time for reflection. A few elements of grotesquerie (that's one naked Naked King) and double entendres mean that the show's not suitable for children, which is a shame. But like expensive chocolates and toy train sets, some childish pleasures are just too much fun to share with kids.

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