The Shape of Things

Also: Anna Karenina.

The Shape of Things

Richard Hugo House; ends Sat., March 26

I don't like people who don't like people. While you deal with that paradox, I'll attempt to grapple with the conundrum of playwright Neil LaBute, master misanthrope, whom ReAct director David Hsieh is far too nice to deal with himself. I suspect, in fact, that Hsieh is quite a nice guy; I don't, unfortunately, believe that "nice guy" is anywhere near the top of the list of requirements for staging a LaBute play. LaBute, for those of you not following his oeuvre of cruelly compelling stage games, is a man convinced that people, when nudged, do the most appalling things to each other. There's ample proof of that in the world, of course, and not even David Mamet, I think, has a better ear for the manipulative evils inside supposedly mundane conversation. Also, unlike Mamet, LaBute doesn't limit his greatest mistrust to women—he doesn't have much faith in anybody.

And so we have The Shape of Things, in which dweeby Adam (David S. Hogan) is transformed into a hunk by audacious art student Evelyn (Angela DiMarco), who gets him to change his hair, his clothing, his sexual adventurousness, and, eventually, his friends—leaving ex-crush Jenny (Mona Leach) and her fiancé, Phillip (Jeffrey Grimm), his former roommate, to fend for themselves. You can bet there's more to it than possessiveness and petty jealousies, since LaBute regularly crosses his Mamet maliciousness with a "gotcha!" final turn of the screw that would make The Village idiot, M. Night Shyamalan, wet himself. You can't relax and just let LaBute's plays run to their own rhythms, because you're constantly sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop—or the other anvil, as it were, since it's always bound to be a whopper. (His Bash monologues, which New City produced a season or two ago, climax with two child murders and a post-gay-bashing romantic proposal.) Shape consists of eight short scenes leading to that ninth whopper, and a final scene in which LaBute attempts to tell us what we've just experienced, which is at once a rather distressingly conservative cautionary tale and an intriguingly, if pitilessly, ambiguous lesson in sticking to your guns.

Most of the episodes are two-person exchanges in often public places, and they're not filled out with enough soiled danger in Hsieh's production; you don't worry about anyone getting caught—or catching himself—in a moment of awful, self-serving appetite. You tend to laugh or recoil more at what LaBute is doing than what Hsieh has made of it. I don't blame Hsieh for not wanting to shake hands with LaBute, but then, he should have left the play to someone else. He does well making his actors comfortable—he gets good mileage out of the fact that Hogan and DiMarco are married in real life—but their discomfort is more to the point, and there are only the most superficial indications of that here. Hsieh tries to puff up the relative emptiness of the staging with some awkwardly used background actors, who walk, jog, or mumble their way across the scenes to let us know that the main characters are in a park, a restaurant, etc.

Hogan is too much a collection of tics in his initial appearance, but his evolution into a handsome, self-confident guy is believable—although we don't see the foul, furtive signs of how handsome, self-confident guys behave when they know they're handsome, self-confident guys. It isn't his fault; a tentative Hsieh, again, is happy to leave the dirty work to LaBute. DiMarco fares well—she's got an edge that slices through the inaction—and so does Grimm, who smarms better than anyone onstage (though he, too, could've used someone to tell him when to mask his casual malice and when to go in for the kill). Leach is left to play the good girl; someone should've told Hsieh that there are no good girls.

Will you be engaged by all of this anyway? Sure, you will. It's only an hour and a half, and the mischief has the pull of a nasty car crash, the kind of familiar collision you drive by and think, "That could've easily been me." The production keeps you awake, because LaBute's writing has the sharp sting of very cold water. There's something to be said for such cool craft, I realize, but I'm always a little troubled wondering whether LaBute even cares if we contemplate how to find warmth again or if he's just having a good, sick time knowing that we're left in the theater chilled to the bone. STEVE WIECKING

Anna Karenina

Open Circle Theater; ends Sat., April 2

The fiction of Dostoyevsky, with its shadowy interiors, claustrophobic psychology, and Shakespearean magniloquence, is almost perfectly suited for adaptation to the live stage, and the last couple of years have witnessed Seattle productions of The Gambler, Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and Notes From Underground, to name a few. Tolstoy's novels, on the other hand, present a problem: Everything is spacious, grand, expansively Russian—not qualities that behoove the typical strengths of fringe theater. How to convey sweep without sweeping away the elemental force of Tolstoy's story?

Atlas Theatre's solution to this is so innovative and ingenious, it seems the only one possible. Helen Edmundson's adaptation takes incredible liberties with the novel's structure while making scarcely a ding in its cosmic spirit. The play is structured around a phantasmic dialogue between Anna (Samara Lerman) and Levin (Chris Mayse), the soul- questing landowner who presents an idealized portrait of Tolstoy himself. These two characters do not physically meet until the play's final act, so it's a bold move to tie their stories together in an intimate manner: "Where are you now?" Levin asks, stepping back into the recesses to become a mere observer to the episode; "I'm on a train," Anna replies, and a new scene unfolds. And so it goes. By reaching across the vast steppes of Tolstoy's authorial ambition, this psychic buddies network creates a sort of postmodern abstract of the novel as well as a thumbnail melodrama linking Levin's existential awakening to Anna's spiritual dissolution. Somehow, it works—grandeur is replaced by sheer narrative thrust, bringing the tragedy into tight focus.

For the most part, co-directors Chris Mayse and José Amador keep things moving nicely, sometimes condensing whole passages of text into a kind of poetic dance of gestures. In a wonderful scene near the end of the first act, a mechanical, freeze-frame pantomime of sex between Anna and the creepy Karenin (Phillip Clarke) depicts in a flash the sad, semi-sadistic dynamics of their loveless marriage. Such economy requires strong, forceful performances, and a number of actors really step up: Lerman, with her deep, mellifluous voice and aristocratic beauty, seems born to play Anna; Mayse is also well cast as the blustery, bighearted Levin (though at times his stentorian voice threatens to overwhelm the character's more contemplative side); and Regan DeVictoria, Aaron Ousley, and Adam Toothaker are noteworthy in supporting roles.

Seeing as this fine production accomplishes a lot in a mere three hours, it may seem unfair to note that the last act drags a bit. Anna's disintegration in the final third of the play, for all its condensation from the novel, is out of whack with the evenhanded briskness that marks the rest of the production—it's simultaneously long-winded and frantic, as though everyone must be bid farewell before . . . well, you know. Perhaps this is an unavoidable side effect of Edmundson's adaptation, which otherwise achieves so much in so little time, and, anyway, it's a minor flaw. To capture the essence of Tolstoy's classic, without also losing its heart, is no minor accomplishment. There are worlds here, and that's enough. RICHARD MORIN

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