Opening Nights

The Beauty of the Father

Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., May 15

"I have a heart the size of a watermelon," confesses middle-aged Paquita (Karmin Murcelo). So does Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics), and it often threatens to fall right off his sleeve. The wordcraft he uses to prevent it from smashing to bits makes for involving theater, despite the fact that he doesn't get much help from director Sharon Ott.

It's the summer of 1999 in a small Spanish town, and lilting, lithesome Marina (Onahoua Rodriguez) has shown up to reconnect with her estranged father, Emiliano (Tom Ramirez), and find some serenity after her mother's death. Emiliano's beach house is full of life, but there's romantic unrest beneath its sunny surface: Emiliano is the object of neighbor Paquita's affection; she, as it happens, is in a marriage of convenience to Emiliano's former gay lover, the virile Karim (Paul Nicholas). Oh, and Emiliano is also being haunted by the intrusive but bighearted spirit of poet Frederico García Lorca (Jonathan Nichols), whose death he is painting. It's only natural that Marina will find herself in a troubled affair with Karim.

"Sometimes I feel like I live three lives," Emiliano sighs in the confusion. The main trouble is, we never get a distinct picture of any of his lives—Cruz hasn't truly painted a vivid enough portrait of his central character, and you can't help but suspect that Ramirez wouldn't be able to play it if he had. Emiliano is supposed to compel both genders; Ramirez's lack of charisma suggests the guy would be lucky to land even one of them. The other performances are stronger: After an uncertain introduction, Nicholas finds his footing with a bit of righteous anger in the second act, while Nichols is a consistently fine, if flowery, Lorca. Cruz clearly comprehends the romantic resignation that is the life's art of many women, and the female actors respond here in kind. Rodriguez gets a little singsongy with the text, but she owns one of the production's most effortless moments, a bit of joyous sadness in which Marina remembers the peace of her mother's demise. "She looked like a masterpiece of life that was," she recalls, and you can roll your eyes at Cruz's clunky lyricism—it won't be the last time—without losing the effect of the line or the tears in Rodriguez's trembling voice. Murcelo is even better; when she tells Marina, "I love your father the same way I love a part of myself," it seems to explain the actions of everyone else in the play.

Ott, alas, isn't as adroit. She can't articulate the sloppy, heady details of the way passionate people respond to one another. Shouldn't there be more palpable tension between Marina and her long-lost father? Between the roving Karim and his cuckolded partners? The actors throw themselves about in noisy fits of yelling and laughing and dancing and embracing, but none of it has the clumsy grace of spontaneous human emotion.

Still, this is a lush production. The ever-agile Etta Lilienthal has designed an outdoor deck just begging to be inhabited. Lighting designer Peter Maradudin has infused it with intoxicatingly delicate sunsets, just right for soothing Cruz's characters, whose hearts beat on defiantly despite pain, betrayal, abandonment, even death. There's enough of Cruz's rich, generous pulse to hold your interest here, even if it's the ghost of a better show. STEVE WIECKING

Yankee Doodle Dandy!

The 5th Avenue; ends Sun., May 16

You might make it through David Armstrong's new musical about George M. Cohan if you bring along a good novel, or if you don't mind napping in public. Either option, frankly, is a better use of your time—all three hours of it.

Be grateful, at least, that you missed the opening-night curtain speech, in which the 5th Avenue's artistic director Armstrong, who wrote the book and co-directed, crowed about the "risk" his theater is taking here. Some risk: Act One closes with the entire stage draped in red, white, and blue while the company hoofs to "You're a Grand Old Flag." Act Two? It opens on Cohan (Seán Martin Hingston) stumping for World War I before asking the audience to join him in a sing-along to "Over There," during which it's clear the invitation is to get misty-eyed with prideful irony ("The Yanks are coming!/And we won't come back 'til it's over/Over there!"). Yeah, it's taking a risk, all right, whoring the tragedy in Iraq just to get a patriotic rise from a house full of moneyed patrons.

Even the nonpandering bunk doesn't work. In case you're wondering, this isn't a stage version of the same-named 1942 Cohan biopic starring an Oscar- winning James Cagney. Where that film was bright-eyed Hollywood baloney, this is sleepy Seattle headcheese. In a framing device, crotchety 60-something George M. (Richard Sanders) shows up at one of his Broadway theaters to reminisce with stage-door chum Lou (Séan G. Griffin) while a movie house across the street screens the Cagney film, which the old man moans has nothing to do with reality. Armstrong's version of Cohan's life, meanwhile, supposedly hews closer to the real thing; it feels like it lasts about 60 years, anyway. The inevitable flashback occurs and we're off to recount Cohan's remarkable history of showmanship, from vaudeville beginnings with parents and sister to his musical innovations that changed Broadway (or Broadway, as it's pronounced here) forever.

Hey, hokey is fine, and Cohan's indestructible melodies still have their theatrical pull. Unfortunately, Armstrong seems determined that we hear every last one of them in their entirety, and then tosses in a few lousy new ones by Albert Evans that do nothing but point out the superior craftsmanship of the old stuff. And Armstrong's handling of his own shticky material is so aimless that you don't know if he intended some of the dramatic notes he's hitting: Does George have an unnatural obsession with sister Josie (Danette Holden)? Are we to assume that devoted business partner Sam Harris (Jason Schuchman) has a little Johnny jones for George?

Hats off to the cast, certainly, for plugging away at all of it. Hingston has a jaunty strut, a mean tap, and apparently limitless reserves of energy (though his rabbity Bowery Boy accent is going to be a matter of taste). Schuchman is rather sympathetic as long-suffering Sam, and Sanders gives it his best as a walking cliché. The chorus players have such commitment during the eventually numbing barrage of old-school musical numbers that they themselves serve as a kind of tribute to Cohan's tireless ambitions. So give my regards to Broadway, but wake me when it's over. S.W.

Hamlet: More Honour'd in the Breach than the Observance

Chamber Theatre; ends Sun., May 16

For an example of folks that doth protest too loudly, let us consult the director's note Rushton Howard penned for his four-actor Hamlet: "Sadly, Hamlet has been overvenerated to the point where blunders in the text are viewed as poesy, and downright clumsy passages are regarded as the Bard's shrewd adroitness with shadowed obscurity. . . . The long night of pomposity is over!" Aye, would that it were so. In the act of de-pomposifying the universe's greatest tragedy, this revamping succeeds mostly in mocking the Bard's most affecting lines with eye rolling and shoulder shrugs. Yes, the language is a challenge, but to poke a pin in, say, Hamlet's "quintessence of dust" soliloquy is plain pinheaded—a fool's rush in the opposite direction of anti-intellectualism and a paradoxical brand of preciousness.

Such is the semantic squelching in this production that, inadvertently or not, the play becomes not a comment on Hamlet but a meta-spectacle of how we view our view of Shakespeare himself. And there's the rub—the level of detachment implicit in any such endeavor raises a scrim of numbness between the audience and the material, to such an extent that any emotional engagement we might have with such familiar work becomes something rote and remedial.

Granted, any troupe attempting to do Hamlet with but four actors deserves a big nod. In this regard, director Howard comes up with some quite innovative transitions, such as having his cast drop a single article of clothing to signify a dead character, with the same actor then transforming into a different role. Lee Howard is excellent as the tortured Dane; his Hamlet is a goateed nebbish whose sassy attitude belies a young hepster paralyzed by what the Greeks called ataxia. Glen Hamilton and Marcus Wolland are both excellent in their roles. Then there's Ophelia. Jenny Buehler delivers the suicide's stuff so rapidly and so quietly that one must leaneth most acutely to make out the lines. (Yes, the long night of pomposity is over.)

Hamlet's difficult. It's long and wordy. It's tough to do anything new with the play. But if you're going to try, better to go overboard than hew too closely to the standard text. This particular take on the play finally suffers from an essential timidity, an unwillingness to really rip into the material—which, actually, might be the greatest tribute of all. RICHARD MORIN

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