“Twelfth Night” produced by the Seattle Shakespeare Company

In this most beloved Shakespearean comedy, poor shipwrecked Viola washes ashore. She’s beached in the strange land of Illyria, but her twin brother Sebastian is nowhere to be seen. Alas, he must have drowned.

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Jay Myers as Orsino and Allie Pratt as Viola.
Photo by John Ulman.

What’s a poor girl to do but disguise herself as a boy and hightail it to Duke Orsino’s palace where certainly the Duke will take her/him on in service? And theDuke needs all the help he can get. He’s in love with the lovely lady Olivia who will have nothing to do with him. What if he hired Viola (now operating under the name of Cesario) and sent “him” off to Olivia as a petitioner for his cause?

Of course it doesn’t work. Olivia falls for Cesario. Cesaro (aka Viola) falls for the Duke, and what follows is a madcap tale of mistaken identity with crazy characters making considerable additions to the mayhem.

Director Jon Kretzu’s design crew has magically transformed the stage. Andrea Bryn Bush’s set and Kent Cubbage’s lighting work together to create a fairy-tale illusion. It’s just umbrellas and streamers hanging from the ceiling, but what an effect they produce!

Sadly, within this enchanted setting, the production disappointed me. Four of Shakespeare’s silliest characters appear in this play. My favorite of all of Shakespeare’s comic characters is Malvolio, Olivia’s pompous steward. His comeuppance, masterminded by Maria the maid along with the fey and awkward Aguecheek, and the conniving Sir Toby Belch can be one of the most comical scenes in all of Shakespeare. Here it isn’t. It’s funny, but not hilarious, as I’ve seen it in other productions. Costuming is key, and Malvolio dressed in golf pants fails to project the appropriate gartered effect that the script calls for. And in other aspects, Malvolio’s victimization is too cruel.

Julie Briskman shines as Maria the maid. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and she lights up the stage whenever she is on it. Another bit of good casting, combined with clever make-up and hair styling, is Allie Pratt as Viola and Christopher Morson as Sebastian, the brother who didn’t drown and who turns up near the end of the play. Their likeness to one another is uncanny, an important factor here, and especially delightful when it all sorts out in the end.

Ah romance! It always begins with illusion and winds up with reality—sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse.

Through Nov. 16 at the Center Theatre in the Armory in Seattle Center, (206 733-8222 or wwwseattleshakespeare.org).

“Dogfight” at Arts West

“Semper fi, do or die,” a fitting motto for the testosterone loaded, newly minted marines who are about to ship off for Vietnam in this play. Their last night stateside will be a blowout beginning with a “dogfight.” A dogfight is a contest in which each man brings the least attractive girl he can find to a party. The marines rent a space, chip in lots of bucks, and the one with the worst “dog” gets the prize money.

Eddie has no luck finding his contestant until late in the day when he chances to meet Rose, a sweet, innocent waitress at her mother’s diner. She’s never been on a date before. It’s a little scary but so exciting and romantic. Then half-way through the evening she finds out just how cruel and mean spirited it really is.

The story is quite predictable, and the first act with its many marine formations moved a little too too slowly for me. The music lacks the highs and lows one hopes for, and I certainly didn’t go away humming any of the tunes.

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Eddie and Rose
photo by Michael Brunk

Things get much better in the second act where romance does eventually bring tenderness to the script. Devon Busswood as Rose is given more room to develop her character as is Kody Bringman as Eddie. Both give depth to their characters’ emotions, and their voices blend well in their duets.

There is such raging machismo here, such blatant misogyny that the role of Marcy the hooker is a needed and well-integrated mediation. Janet McWilliams in the role radiates power and pizazz. Oh yes, she’ll play their ugly game, but will do so only if she’s well rewarded for it. She, not the marines, is in charge here.

This 2012 Peter Duchan stage adaptation of the 1991 film features music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Here Mathew Wright, Arts West’s new artistic director, directs and Christopher DiStefano is in charge of music.

Through Nov. 22, at Arts West, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org).

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at ACT

Our state has long had its seagulls and cherry orchards. Now thanks to ACT it has Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” This marvelous mix of the wry, the very funny, and the philosophically charged won numerous awards when it played in Manhattan, and it has lost none of its flair in this Seattle production. R. Hamilton Wright as Vanya, Marianne Owen as Sonia, and Pamela Reed as Masha pull off the humor and the poignancy with élan.

VanyaEtc - Full cast and set shot (c) Chris Bennion

Full cast and set
(c) Chris Bennion

Aging siblings, Vanya and Sonia live in a Bucks County country house that could well be a Russian dacha (wonderfully realized by scenic designer Carey Wong). Life is dull but stable, until their sister Masha, a successful actress who actually owns the house, sweeps in with her boy-toy Spike (William Poole) and announces that she’s going to sell the manse. But first they should all go to the neighborhood costume party.

Durang, in this award winning play, cleverly makes these characters who are awash in delusions, self pity or both raucously funny. And to add to the humor there’s Cassandra (Cynthia Jones) the cleaning lady who, like her Greek namesake, has the ability to prophesize.

Director Kurt Beattie knows just how to pull every nuance from a script, and under his fine- tuning his cast does just that. Pamela Reed as hedonistic Masha, fearful of losing her youth struts about the stage with royal demeanor and demands. Marianne Owen is so perfectly needy and nerdy you want to give her a good kick, and R. Hamilton Wright touches our heart with his soulful yearnings and few demands.

Listen carefully so that you can delight in the wit of Durang’s word play. Here there’s an extra measure of pleasure if you have some knowledge of Chekhov and his themes and characters, but you don’t have to know all that to enjoy this play. And to make this confection even more delicious, underneath all the amusements is a thoughtful look at change, a nostalgic longing for life as it was in a quieter, non-electronic age.

Through November 16, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“A Lesson From Aloes” produced by Thalia’s Umbrella, playing in The Isaac Studio Theatre at Taproot Theatre

I’ve been away for the past two weeks, left the day “A Lesson From Aloes” opened. So I couldn’t see it until last night (Oct. 23). And now there are just three performances left. Take my advice and make every effort to see one of those remaining shows. Written by Athol Fugard, the celebrated contemporary South African playwright, and performed with exquisite precision, it’s a distinguished theatre experience.

The aloe is a plant, a survivor in a harsh landscape. It’s prickly and tolerant of difficult conditions. In this intense and emotionally charged play that takes place in the apartheid South Africa of the 1960s, three characters find that their survival in that environment is even more difficult: Piet a man of Boer heritage, Gladys, his wife, who comes from English stock, and their friend Steve, a black man whose heritage is as native to the land as are the aloes.

The festering sore that was South African racial politics damages each one. Yet it is Steve who is uprooting his family, leaving his homeland for England. They come together for a celebratory dinner before his departure.

Piet is dug into the country as surely as are the aloes he collects. Terry Edward Moore brings to the role a quiet dignity. He’s a man with the soul of a poet, scarred by the political and social realities of his country.

Pam Nolte as Gladys, Piet’s English wife, epitomizes “a woman on the verge.” She’s had her breakdown and now desperately strives to maintain her grasp on the sanity or the emotional stability that keeps slipping out of her control. Nolte gracefully captures this tightly coiled, deeply wounded shell of a human.

William Hall, Jr. as Steve has, of course, suffered most under the fetid politics of his beloved country. Hall shows noteworthy reserve as he makes clear the personal cost of uprooting his family, leaving the land he loves, the land of is ancestors, the land that offers no hope for him, his children, and their children.

The play is powerful, a feast for the thinking man or woman. The acting is finely polished, and the accents are superb. Voice Coach Stephanie Kallos has helped the actors capture their characters’ country and their place within that country. Altogether this is too good to miss.

Through Oct. 26 at The Isaac Studio Theatre at Taproot Theatre, 804 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.thaliasumbrella.org).

“The Fabulous Lipitones” at Taproot Theatre

What can a prize winning barbershop quartet do when their tenor dies just before the national championships? Fortunately for the Lipitones, one of their members hears the golden tones of “Bob” in the background when he calls his garage. “Send Bob over!” he says. And so the members rejoice thinking their problem is solved.

Bob does indeed have a melodious voice and a quick ability to harmonize, but he’s “different,” and at least one member of the group is not able to accept “different.” So begins the very funny, marvelously musical, and thoughtful reminder that cultural differences add richness to life.

Director Scott Nolte brings forth all the underlying message of tolerance in John Markus’ and Mark St. Germain’s script, yet makes sure the humor is front and center and that the theatre reverberates with the joyous sounds of good barbershop quartet music. There are 17 songs presented within the production, and each is a delight to aficionados of the genre and an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with it.

Jeff Berryman, Patrick Lowrie, and Greg Stone as the original members of the quartet harmonize delightfully and also manage to give their characters individuality. Brad Walker makes Bob an endearing charmer, a captivating presence, able to shake off the prejudice that greets him and win the day. And you’ll delight in Nanette Acosta’s costumes for the group’s competition appearance.

This is light entertainment at its best.

Through Oct. 18 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).