Opening Nights: Balagan, the 5th, Seattle Shakes, PNB, and the Schmee

CloserBalagan Theatre, 1117 E. Pike St., 800-838-3006, $12–$20. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 4."Our flesh is ferocious. Our bodies will kill us. Our bones will outlive us." That poetic bon mot lies at the heart of this 1997 British dramedy, which follows two couples through years of amorous entanglements they cannot resist, fully aware they're slicing each other to ribbons with each new embrace. The play (last staged locally by ReAct in 2002) insists that there's something ineffably broken in the way we mate. Love here is essentially an act of naked selfishness.Lies, affairs, and betrayals overlap as three Brits—Dan, a journalist; a dermatologist named Larry; and an aspiring photographer named Anna—grapple with the deceptive American stripper, Alice, who's dropped into their midst. In Closer, "Don't leave me" is practically a mantra, even though it's clear that none of the combinations in which these four couple is going to be good for any of them. Patrick Marber's writing is dazzlingly funny at times and reveals a razor edge at others, as the characters repeatedly bump into each other in unexpected places to spin the action in a new direction. The show's most powerful scene finds Larry in a London titty bar, throwing money at an undulating Alice as he tries to persuade her to reveal anything genuine about herself. He leaves empty-handed, and ultimately so do the other characters. The lights go down at intermission to one of the most startling lines ever to end a first act: "Now fuck off and die, you fucked-up slag."Director Lisa Confehr pries the locks on these complicated lives and relationships, but she's unable to get her performers to open completely. There's a kind of steeplechase among the four cast members: As they approach those passages where Marber requires them to leap, several shy away at the last instant. Perhaps it's a lack of rehearsal, but the effect is deadly. At critical junctures, the actors simply look at each other and offer line readings that have no connection to their own characters or the consequences they face.Production values belie the fact that Balagan is essentially a shoestring operation. But a show like Closer lives or dies by the performances of its cast, and if they're not completely committed, then it's all for naught. KEVIN PHINNEYHello, Dolly!5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, $22–$81. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Wed., 8 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1:30 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends March 29.Even non-theatergoers are familiar with this Jerry Herman musical, thanks to the 1969 film adaptation starring Barbra Streisand and, much more recently, Disney's WALL-E. Based on Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker, it follows self-proclaimed meddler Dolly Levi to New York, where she's hired to find a wife for crusty "half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder. It soon becomes evident, however, that Dolly actually intends on snagging the man for herself.The 5th Avenue called on big guns Jenifer Lewis and Pat Cashman to play the leading roles, but on opening night, Lewis tripped over several of her lines and Cashman's delivery often came across as stiff and forced. Most bewildering was that Lewis played Dolly as a modern-day R&B diva a la J.Lo or Mariah Carey. Given that Wilder's play takes place at the turn of the 20th century and that Dolly is an officious Jewish woman, Lewis' interpretation was just plain weird—especially since none of the other actors attempted contemporary versions of their characters.Fortunately, the production is saved by a slew of supporting actors who excel in the plot's arguably more interesting side ventures. Greg McCormick Allen and Mo Brady are delightful as clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who abandon Mr. Vandergelder's store to visit New York so they can eat a decent meal, see the stuffed whale at the museum, and, most important, kiss some girls. Suzanne Bouchard and Tracee Beazer are wonderful as the sweet hat-shop owner Irene Molloy and her well-meaning but ditzy assistant Minnie Fay, with whom the boys are smitten.The show's highlight comes late in the second act, when the entire cast convenes at a restaurant and launches into a song-and-acrobatic-dance version of the title number.The charming routine had the audience applauding enthusiastically for two minutes-plus. ERIKA HOBARTPICK The Merchant of VeniceCenter House Theatre, Seattle Center, 733-8222, $22–$36. Runs Thurs.–Sun. Ends April 5.More than 250 years before Stephen Foster transformed black slaves in the U.S. from objects of derision into sympathetic characters in song, William Shakespeare did Jewish folk a similarly questionable good turn in penning The Merchant of Venice. Foster made a daring leap in depicting slavery as inhumane, but he did not advocate emancipation. Likewise, Shakespeare seems to have wanted it both ways—to play to 16th-century prejudices by putting a vindictive money-grubber like Shylock front and center while simultaneously highlighting his inability to receive justice.This comedy, as it's classified, remains one of the Bard's most-debated works, and this sharp new staging by the Seattle Shakespeare Company will continue to stoke the controversy. Los Angeles director John Langs (who staged last fall's assured revival of The Adding Machine) is back in Seattle, and not only has he set his Merchant during the 1929 stock market crash, but he's enlisted his wife, television actress Klea Scott, to play the female lead. There's a Gatsbyesque patina to his rendering, as well—the lines are sleek, the diction crisp, the delivery precise. It couldn't be more refined if the cast included Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum.Langs' cast is a dervish in constant motion. By turns, they're witty and witless, compassionate and utterly without pity. Mark Chamberlin nobly leads the charge of the white brigade as Antonio, the ship owner from whom Shylock will seek his pound of flesh, while Charles Leggett plays Shylock as a kind of renaissance Willy Loman, long-suffering and perseverant—a wronged man waiting for tides to turn in his favor. It's easy to see why Langs had faith that his wife would make a solid Portia; Scott is reserved and regal in all the right places, but also ably communicates a hint of well-intentioned mischief that lightens the proceedings considerably.Resetting the show in the 1920s does nothing to help or hinder the production, but what it does do is allow the work itself to shine. There are no ruffles or flourishes, no gaudy primary colors or Puss-in-Boots getups to distract from what is clearly among the thorniest of Shakespeare's plays, an approach that renders this Merchant as transparent as the Christians' antipathy toward Shylock and as naked as Shylock's loathing for them and their strength in numbers. More than 400 years after its debut, what was unresolved and unsettling about The Merchant of Venice remains so. The quality of mercy is not strained, Shakespeare reminds us. But in this age of Bernie Madoff and sub-prime fallout, what is avarice, and where, if ever, should it intersect with mercy? KEVIN PHINNEYPICK PNB Broadway FestivalMcCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., 441-2424, $25–$155. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., March 19–Sat., March 21, 1 p.m. Sun., March 22.Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal has said repeatedly that he wants to bring modern dance, breakdance, and acrobatics into the company's repertory. But it's perhaps no surprise that the most successful part of PNB's current Broadway-themed program is the most traditional.Carousel (A Dance), which premiered in New York in 2002, uses some recognizable tunes from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and makes a few references to the main characters, but is really more of a neoclassical ballet than anything else. Christopher Wheeldon's choreography is deftly crafted, especially in the central duet. There's a hint of Billy Bigelow, the show's carnival barker, in the partnering: The man is more aggressive than courtly, which translates into some heavily accented lifts. It's his interest in expanding ballet, rather than grafting other things onto it, that makes Wheeldon almost an endangered species as a choreographer. This is his third work for the PNB repertory, with another coming in June, an example of very smart shopping on Boal's part.By contrast, George Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue feels lightweight and showbizzy. When he first came to America, Balanchine had a brief but fruitful career on Broadway. His Slaughter, from Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes, could be a lighthearted take on Romeo and Juliet, with a sweet-hearted stripper and a lovelorn tap dancer as the starcrossed lovers. First staged as an independent work 40 years ago, it's a charming cartoon and a cheerful opening act.Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman made Take Five...More or Less last year for PNB's "Laugh Out Loud" festival, and it still gets laughs. She sketches a handful of characters quickly—a lovelorn girl, a vamp, a dreamer, a trio of devoted chorus boys—moving them easily over the top of Dave Brubeck's familiar rhythmic tricks. Like Slaughter, its appeal is in its breezy caricatures and romp-in-the-park physicality, but in the middle of this program it's perhaps one piece of light entertainment too many.Boal gives the final slot to a suite of West Side Story dances that Jerome Robbins first put together in 1995. Oddly, Robbins chose to finish this version with "Somewhere," leaving out the final twist. For the majority of people in the audience who grew up with the film, or performed in their high school's production, it's a curiously awkward conclusion. The PNB cast sings and dances with the intense sincerity of those high-school productions, but they finish in an open field rather than a gritty empty lot. They are indeed "Somewhere"—though not quite where we expect. SANDRA KURTZPICK When the Messenger Is HotTheater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., 324-5801, $15–$21. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends April 11.Narcissistic moms cast loooong shadows. Aspiring writer Josie is so enthralled by hers that she wills Mom back to life after her death from lung cancer. Why should this diva die by life's rules, when she didn't live by them? In Laura Eason's Steppenwolf-forged play (based on the 2004 book of short stories by Elizabeth Crane), the 30-something Josie seeks love in all the wrong places while communicating with Mom, whom she remains desperate to please.Eason shrewdly splits Josie into three actresses, which mitigates the "all-about-me" orientation of the text. At first the multiple "selves" gimmick grates, but as context develops and the actresses take ownership of distinct character nuances, it pays off. Josie's grief over Mom is painful and at times melodramatic, but the parallel elements of her amusingly hopeful and doomed love life leaven the dough. As Mom, Karen Nelsen blends profanity and pretense, narrowly avoiding a cliché of eccentricity. Frank Lawler does wide-ranging yeoman's work as nearly every male character, from crass playboy to gay best friend to quiet stranger who dances affectingly with Josie 1 (Marty Mukhalian) at her loneliest moment.The spare stage is no hindrance to the story, thanks to creative blocking and lots of explicitly narrated description of what's going on. While not gut-busting, the humor is subtle and feels real. We pull for this vulnerable everygal whose three selves in flagrant denial plot to cheat death ("It can't stick!"), and who never encounters a pothole into which she does not wholeheartedly insert her ankle. MARGARET FRIEDMAN

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