The Last Five Years

Also: Green Night, Accidental Death of An Anarchist, and Hamlet X: The Tragedy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The Last Five Years

East Hall Theater; ends Sun., Oct. 2

For the second time in as many months, a modest, two-person fringe show has put to shame the embarrassing elephantine excess going on over at the 5th Avenue. ReAct Theatre's staging of Jason Robert Brown's bittersweet off-Broadway musical romance is more of a rough gem than Andrew Lippa's John & Jen was back in July; it has an uncertain hand at the helm that leaves it resembling a likable workshop production. But it has abundant heart and honest emotion—two things missing from the canned commerce of something like Princesses.

It also has Brown's sung-through book score, a rich, witty, perceptive look at love that outdoes Lippa's engagingly simplistic piece (which Brown's own orchestration helped immeasurably). The Last Five Years gives us perspective on the courtship and eventually fraught marriage of a twentysomething couple, doggedly ambitious Jewish novelist Jamie Wellerstein and his beloved "shiksa goddess" Catherine Hiatt, a struggling, neurotic actress. Catherine's solos take us from the end of the relationship back to the end of the first date; Jamie sings his way forward. At the denouement of Brown's moving 90-minute conceit of trading songs and time frames, we're left with Jamie's last embittered goodbye and Catherine's radiant first.

Though ReAct has triple-cast the show throughout the run, its first weekend's successes and failures are probably a safe indication of what to expect. Catherine (Emjoy Gavino on opening night) is a more easily grasped character, and director David Hsieh and his capable music director/pianist Mark Rabe (who performed the same duties on John & Jen) have no problems bringing out all of who she is. The harried Catherine lacks confidence but not a self-sustaining sense of humor, and Gavino, who was a bit past her depth vocally as Cinderella in ReAct's Into the Woods, is here as bright and funny as she is believably doomed to disappointment. Whether trying to convince herself that Jamie's instant critical acclaim is also hers ("I'm a Part of That") or gritting her teeth through a comically miserable acting gig ("A Summer in Ohio"), Gavino's Catherine captures all the grays with which Brown has carefully shaded her.

Jamie is a tougher character for an actor to color—not without charm, but self-centered and too cocksure that his convictions can carry the day. Hsieh and Rabe are sidetracked by the combined mass of Jamie's ego, the go-getting songs Brown gives him, and the misplaced theatrical bravado of opening-night actor Timothy Glynn (Into the Woods' smug Prince). Gifted with a hearty, open presence and an often magnificent vocal instrument—when he hits a high note, you can bet it's the note to hit—Glynn always seems about to tell us that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, or that something's coming, something good, if he can wait. The tense task of communicating the more ruminative nature of an intimate, if bouncy, chamber musical gives him an almost permanent crease between the eyebrows. Though Jamie's songs, befitting his fortunes, go up and up and up, Brown has nonetheless tucked tiny moments of worry down within them; even in his first flush of success, Jamie tells us he's "got a singular impression things are moving too fast." We don't get enough of that impression from Glynn's would-be showstoppers—Hsieh and Rabe can't him get to wedge himself into the contemplative chinks of Jamie's armor. (Well, he delves in there once, and wonderfully. "If I Didn't Believe in You" finds his furiously conflicted Jamie attempting to assure Catherine of her potential while explaining his need to explore his own at whatever cost: "I will not lose because you can't win.")

Hsieh's staging sorely needs an extra layer or two of polish. The awkward blocking and penny-pinching physical production prove to be impediments—the actors rarely move beyond their given marks, as if they're auditioning this material rather than enlarging it. Yet the score is so winning and well sung, and Hsieh's devotion (however flawed) to putting it across so apparent, that the show is worth a look and a listen. Much like the relationship it depicts, it's a troubled experience filled with moments of absorbing passion. STEVE WIECKING

Green Night

Chamber Theater; ends Sat., Sept. 24

Based loosely on the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macha Monkey's production has all the outward trappings of political correctness run amok. Playwright John Kaufmann transforms the original story—in which Gawain faces off against the Green Knight in a torturous test of courage and self-sacrifice—into a sort of proto-feminist creation myth, featuring do-gooder ecologists, evil weapons manufacturers, prelapsarian primitives, and a prime piece of real estate that more or less holds the fate of the world in the balance.

It has a pretty hoary setup, wrung dry. When Gwen (Desiree Prewitt), an idealistic and somewhat fusty climatologist, strikes a Faustian bargain with cunning corporate henchmistress Val Green (Alycia Delmore), thereby transferring Cly-Mate's weather balloon guidance system into the hands of the dreaded military-industrial complex for "Project Ax Drop" . . . well, it's about here that anyone fed up with the liberal platitudes will find herself extremely hard-pressed to stifle a yelp of resignation. Nothing in particular is out of order—the acting is good, the writing terse and witty, and the narrative connected sure as a well-tended switchboard. It just seems too easy, unsullied by the sort of ambivalence and complexities that elevate art above the mere practice of pamphleteering. (And, besides that, this sort of science vs. primitive wisdom fable has already been done by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle.)

With the advent of the second act, however, everything falls nicely into place, and the production gathers a righteous head of steam that draws us in until the final curtain. With the exception of Prewitt, everyone in the cast—which includes Trick Danneker, Ray Tagavilla, Johnny Patchamatla, and Melissa Brown—switches roles in a kind of Wizard of Oz fantasy displacement, becoming members of a remote island's lost culture. Where a less-assured hand might allow the narrative to tumble into exotic chaos, director Shawn Beylea manages the scenic transition from boardroom to jungle with delightful aplomb and tidiness. There are substantial kinks and subtleties of plot, all of which are allowed to play out apace, and the results are no less enthralling for being so clear and precise.

Each cast member gives off that aura of controlled joy and confidence that belies a deep belief in the material at hand. Brown is especially captivating in her transition from mousy assistant Sharon to shamanistic Sharon, revealing in a lanky ritual dance some serious chops for physical humor.

In its upheaval of expectation as well as the sheer exuberance of its eventually sophisticated "sacrificial comedy," Green Night proves to be a real surprise and a hell of a lot of fun. RICHARD MORIN

Accidental Death of An Anarchist

Richard Hugo House; ends Sun., Oct. 9

At a time when governmental response to any horrific event is frequently lethal ineptitude, Dario Fo's 1970 Anarchist seems the most trenchant of political farces, an enduringly infuriated bit of buffoonery. Director Gabriel Baron's rendering of such singular absurdity is more successful than the version of Fo's Archangels Don't Play Pinball staged at Capitol Hill Arts Center in June—it's faster, funnier, and surer of its goals. It has occasional problems with its foolishness, but it fully comprehends its fools.

Written at a time when Fo's Italy was being torn apart by violent unrest and a questionable administration's equally aggressive response to it, Anarchist opens with "honest" police officer Bertozzo (Gavin Cummins) informing the audience that what we're about to see is simply leftist propaganda. It's the first of many ironic asides, most of which will be tossed at us by the madman whom Bertozzo has brought in for questioning, a Maniac (Darragh Kennan) who suffers from "histromania"—he can't help himself from impersonating other people and making the unwilling world his stage. Because he's also suffering on Fo's willing stage, the Maniac's malady will soon be put to good use—Bertozzo and his fellow police officers are under harsh public scrutiny for allegedly railroading an innocent railroad worker to his death out a department window. The Maniac's return to the empty office sets in motion a series of preposterous performances in which he convinces the station's hotheaded Inspector Pissani (Michael Patten), Superintendent (M.J. Sieber), and dimwitted Officer (David Goldstein) that their roles in a fatal interrogation are about to cost them their careers.

The show hinges on Kennan's performance and his camaraderie with the rest of the ensemble. Baron did right by casting him—anyone who saw the actor as the Pacino-fied gangster of CHAC's Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui knows he has a handle on comic fury. When Baron grants him room to breathe, Kennan rewards him in kind with the fluid, resourceful mirth of a cartoon jester, sticking it to his would-be tormentors by means of ludicrous disguise and rampant, rapid-fire wordplay. He leads the cast confidently into the fun house, and they follow with fearless aplomb. (Goldstein's oafish lackey deserves mention—he's so haplessly hysterical, you almost don't want to see him punished.)

But Baron doesn't always give Kennan, or anybody else, the aforementioned space. The whole thing starts off so tightly wound that it threatens to look like work and sometimes slips off into a realm where empty volume and soulless speed substitute for the genuinely hysterical. Baron edges dangerously close to encouraging the kind of performances that marred his own lead turn in Archangels. Kennan's irreverence is often too intense—he should be unhinging everyone else while we admire his loony inner peace. It's the difference between Bugs Bunny's animated anarchy and the oppressive insanity of Woody Woodpecker.

The enraged lack of subtlety in Fo's humor is, surely, exactly the point—what's so funny isn't really funny because its slapstick dementia is a fun-house mirror image of the truth. When the production fails, however, it's because Baron wants to sledgehammer home what he's already hitting fiercely and finely on the head. Though Fo himself encourages textual updates in the translation of his works—which results here in investigative journalist Feletti (Rhonda J. Soikowski) deadpanning, "This play was written long before anyone heard of Iraq"—Baron isn't sure when to stop (references to WTO and teargassing on Seattle's Capitol Hill win the Enough Is Enough Award for Anachronistic Indulgence). An intrusive madcap musical score by Sebastian Lange also forces the actors to raise the decibel level an unnecessary extra notch.

For all this, though, the production has been put together so assiduously with an eye on the ridiculous that even when something goes wrong it feels in the spirit of the piece. Baron's scrupulous attentions—the timing of the physical comedy is particularly astute—mean the world he's created is believably harebrained enough to accommodate even the amusing little technical gaffes that popped up now and again opening weekend (props that don't work are just another reason for the cast to have permission to play). And Kennan in top form means gut-busting in every sense of the word. You'll laugh freely and frequently, and likely be socked into recognition that this outlandish universe is uncomfortably close to the one we're barely surviving outside the theater's doors. STEVE WIECKING

Hamlet X: The Tragedy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Rainier Valley Cultural Center; ends Sun., Oct. 2

You can wrap Hamlet around an adaptation, or find Hamlet in that which you're adapting, but either way, you'd better bring something new to the table—it's late in the game. The historical figure of Malcolm X isn't such an obvious fit for the Dane, until you start thinking in broad, abstract strokes, both about the play and the person inserted into the title role. Director Tyrone Brown, who also adapted The Tragedy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz from the original Shakespeare, locates the dramatic tension in Malcolm X's ambivalent relationship both to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and to the political uses of violence in general. Perhaps to suit this purpose, Brown also compresses the action, honing the play to its essence (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not only dead here, they never even existed).

The story of Malcolm X is defined largely by conflict and progression— from criminal to hero, addiction to independence, division to cohesion—and Brown explores this dialectic by steeping Shakespeare's language in charged political rhetoric. Infusing the dialogue with the religious and political fervor of Malcolm X's distinctive oratory style (a seductive combination of sermon and call to arms), Brown's adaptation becomes almost exclusively a meditation on choice, which finds its roots in conflict and resolves itself in action. This Hamlet is less existential than he is messianic; Brown transforms the character's tragedy into a form of martyrdom.

Obviously, none of it would work without a very strong actor in the lead. Joseph Mascerello proves himself more than capable of merging fact and fiction. His Hamlet X is conflicted yet quietly powerful, a figure of simmering charisma beset by outside forces compelling him to act. Turning traditional readings on their heads, Mascerello delivers Hamlet's most famous soliloquy as a stump speech, an exhortation purged of all doubt. It's a stunning moment.

Unfortunately, not all of the Bard's text proves as elastic to Brown's intent—especially the play's final act, which reveals the limitations of absolute fidelity to the original. Malcolm X's assassination was tragic, but not tragic in the Shakespearean sense, and one wishes that here Brown had veered more toward historic truth.

Such discordance, however, is a minor flaw. Along with Mascerello, Marcel Davis gives a fantastic rendition of Minister Polonius, and William Wheeler and Patricia Henderson are lovably sinister as the Honorable Claudius and Mother Gertrude. And Brown, for his part, is a talented and gutsy playwright—his is a production rich in innovation and spirit. RICHARD MORIN

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