Intiman Theatre ends April 7
JUST BEFORE intermission in Cymbeline, the rarely staged Shakespeare play that opens Intiman's new season, the entire cast drifts plaintively onstage to croon a wistful country and western melody, accompanied by guitar and harmonica. To mention that up until this point the show has been decidedly Eastern in influence—with Kabuki-like drumming and pinging and clacking—is probably beside the point. The moment, like the production itself, is strangely lovely, distractingly wrong, and will probably make somebody's night.
As distinctive storytelling, the show is hard to beat. I'd wager most audiences have little to no familiarity with this particular tale, but artistic director Bartlett Sher, for all his subsequent quirks, knows how to get the key elements across. His players, garbed in Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's Oriental hybrids, stride emotionlessly onto the polished red floor and wait for two cream-suited, Tom Wolfe-ish Storytellers (Aled Davies and Lori Larsen) to fill them with purpose. The righteous Posthumous (Jason Cottle) is torn from the arms of heartbroken young wife Imogen (Julyana Soelistyo), whose father (Philip Davidson), the titular king, has banished him. His journey back to her, and her convoluted journey toward him, is related clearly and with sometimes dazzling flourishes.
Whether you choose to go with those flourishes will determine your entertainment level—you may find yourself in a tug-of-war between dubiousness and delight. Sher keeps breaking his own rules, and his playful aloofness can pull you out of the proceedings. The Storytellers don't really work, Davidson's king never means anything to us, and it's hard to decide if the impish Soelistyo is utterly charming or completely without import (Anne Allgood's deliciously conniving queen puts us in more reliable territory). Act 2, the tone of which is ushered in by the aforementioned serenade, is a looser, livelier affair with cowboys and kung fu that seem to have kicked their way in from another production. Cymbeline is a long evening, and it lags, but its dynamic, determinedly oddball gestures will keep you on your toes.
Consolidated Works ends April 8
OPERATING UNDER his "Keenan Hollahan" moniker, The Stranger's sex columnist is busy poking Peter Shaffer's Equus in the eye with a chicken. What used to be a deadly serious psychodrama—about an obsessive, sexually frustrated boy who brutally blinds several horses—has been transformed into a scathing, Savage parody featuring erotic poultry.
Director Dan Savage's Egguus has Alan Strang (hysterically wild-eyed and wiry Jonah Von Spreecken) castrating himself after beer-battering and frying 600,000 chickens in a fit of ferocious grief. Replacing all of Shaffer's equine references with fowl humor, the play's grim therapist (Nick Cameron) is now solemnly reflecting, "What use is grief to a chicken?" Just hearing "chicken" is, of course, inherently funny, but the poker-faced word substitution busts you in the gut twice—once for the silly switch, then again when you realize how dumb the whole horse conceit was in the first place.
Though most of the big laughs here are a result of flamboyant irreverence (the orgiastic, feathered "climax" comes to mind), Savage has been scrupulous in his staging. The breadth of his comic indictment creeps up on you while the production settles into its rhythms; just when you find yourself relaxing into the parody, you remember that everyone is speaking gravely on the rim of a giant fried egg. (None of this would be half as hilarious, I should add, minus scenic designer Kathryn Rathke's elegantly preposterous imagination).
Cameron is effective if often a bit out of sorts, and neither of Alan's parents has enough polish. But John Kaufman makes the most disturbingly sexy rooster I ever hope to see, and both Tinka Jonakova (as Alan's relentlessly horny pursuer) and Tina La Plant (cursing "zat ball-less chicken killer" as an irate German farmer) are wonderfully loopy.
One caveat: If you have no experience with Shaffer's ham-fisted original, well, then, these eggs will be missing some meat (sorry, I just couldn't help myself).
Spinning Into Butter
Seattle Repertory Theatre ends April 14
IN REBECCA GILMAN'S flawed but unshakable Spinning Into Butter, which opened at the Seattle Rep last week, a Vermont college is sent into a tailspin of political correctness when an African-American student is threatened by racist notes left on his door. Sarah Daniels (Julie Briskman Hall), a student advisor, unwittingly finds herself at the center of the maelstrom. Both the playwright and this production comprehend Daniels' resulting personal panic, but too often choose not to bury it when burying it would do the most good.
Gilman overtly stacks the deck against her white intellectuals—Sarah is having an ill-advised affair with a coworker, her mother is an alcoholic, and the rest of the college's administrative staff are pompous, swaggering babies. Director Richard E. T. White does her one broader: The kind of hyperaware tsk-tsking he's encouraged from his cast puts us complacently outside the argument. It's too easy to tell ourselves that we could never be as embarrassingly out of touch as those people.
The evening only crackles whenever Sarah is confronted by Patrick Chibas (Brian Homer), a "Nuyorican" student whom she unwisely convinces to accept an ethnic scholarship. The impassioned Homer talks like an actual person, and Hall responds in kind—you wait for him to come back and bring the reality with him. Their scenes are the real deal: two people, choked with frustration, circling each other right in the thick of our nation's thorny social muddle, each wanting something the other is entirely incapable of giving.
Though she fumbles, Gilman is at least trying to articulate how much our current confusions go beyond a mere struggle with words. When she's on fire—as in a blistering Act 2 monologue that has Sarah helplessly unloading her own prejudices—her material uncovers a frightened honesty that this production just doesn't tap. The show sounds too much like a public service announcement. It should sound like the truth.