“The Crucible” by Arthur Miller at ACT

Brilliant! The best production I’ve seen in months! And, no, that’s not hyperbole, but let me put it in perspective. I love Arthur Miller’s work; I love this play; ACT’s production under the direction of John Langs is wonderful, and timely.

Most readers know the story that takes place in Puritan New England. You know—Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Ann Hutchinson, religious extremism, witch trials. Indeed in the l690s a wave of hysteria afflicted the settlement of Salem, Massachusetts. Teen aged girls claimed to be possessed and began identifying neighbors as witches who were working as the devil’s aides and set on destroying the sanctity of the community. Before sanity was restored 20 people, mostly women, were condemned as witches and hung, and, in at least one case, pressed to death by heavy stones. And not surprisingly, some of their most vociferous neighbor/accusers benefited from their demise?

Miller’s play was written and produced during the McCarthy era, a time when the Senator from Wisconsin carried out a witch-hunt against supposed communists, the “witches” who were out to destroy our democracy. Colleagues were forced to testify against colleagues. Innuendo, served as proof. Hysteria prevailed. Innocents, fearful of being accused, failed to speak against this insanity. Hundreds of careers were destroyed. Yet in the process, some careers (McCarthy’s and Roy Cohn’s for example) were enhanced and personal agendas were boosted before being brought down.

It’s all here on this stage, a sparse stage designed by Matthew Smucker that works wonderfully to enhance the story. The cast is an all-star extravaganza. Director Langs has involved many of the most highly regarded actors in the city. There’s Paul Morgan Stetler as John Proctor, the voice of reason in a society gone mad. Anne Allgood, Kurt Beattie, William Hall, Jr., Michael Patten, Marianne Owen, MJ Sieber, Ray Tagavilla and many others whose names you would recognize all offer fine performances.

The special richness of this production is achieved, in good part, by these subtle yet emotionally taught performances. Stetler’s John Proctor is a flawed man of conscience. The intensity of his internal struggles is mesmerizing. Avery Clark and MJ Sieber as the self-satisfied champions of the lord make one squirm. Khanh Doan as Mrs. Proctor creates a victim for whom we must weep. And so it goes, a cast without a single weak member.

This is a play that has been periodically revived as existing social and political circumstances in the United States make it particularly relevant. I would say its messages are always worth remembering, and when the production is as good as this one is, it shouldn’t be missed.

Through Nov. 12 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, 206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.

“The World of Extreme Happiness” at Seattle Public Theatre, Produced in Association with SIS

I’m an enormous fan of Desdemona Chiang who directed this play. And, over the years, I’ve been impressed with the acting of a number of members of this cast. In addition, I’ve come to expect really good productions from this theatre company and from SIS. I found little to like in “The World of Extreme Happiness,” an exploration of the costs of modernization in today’s China by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Production values are weak, and the play is more than a bit polemical.

Historically girls haven’t fared as well as boys in China, and, as this play points out, they still don’t. It begins with the pains of labor that result in the birth of a baby girl in a contemporary rural village. Her father, who has little use for daughters, tosses her into a slop bucket from which she is rescued. The play follows her to maturity.

As a young adult full of hope she heads to a big city to forge her career. It begins in a public bathroom where she cleans the toilets and washes the floors. Depressing! Dead end! Ah, but all is not lost. A colleague takes her to a self-help guru who introduces her and others to the power of positive thinking.

Of course she sets about to rebuild her life. But she encounters so many of the inequities that are inherent in China’s effort to reimagine itself. Poor factory girls aren’t sharing in the economic boom that has enriched the educated men and women who revitalize the nation. No, the factory girls live in depressing dormitories far from their homes. They carry out mind-numbing tasks for relatively little recompense.

Our heroine’s life like that of the other village girls stuck in the huge cities is miserable. These women are exploited, unhappy, and suicidal. The play successfully portrays the human cost of societal transformation, and it identifies the early losers in the revolution. It’s an important story and has elements that could make it fascinating, if only it weren’t so preachy.

Sadly this choppy production is also flawed. Few stage props or sets are used. Much of the action plays out on an almost bare stage, sometimes on the floor and out of sight of some audience members. The highly creative lighting (Emily Leong) doesn’t compensate for the paucity of stagecraft. This isn’t “Waiting for Godot” where stark staging works perfectly.

As China has engineered its astounding transition, there have been casualties. We see it on this stage.

Through November 5 at Seattle Public Theatre, 7312 West Green Lake Drive N., Seattle, 206-524-1300, SeattlePublicTheatre.org.

Kate Hamill’s “Pride and Prejudice” at Seattle Rep

Don’t come to this performance expecting a traditional outing with Jane Austen and her charming cast of characters. Oh, all the main players are there, but they are inserted into Kate Hamill’s madcap, zany, and farcical adaptation of this highly revered Austen favorite. If you are a traditionalist, this probably won’t be for you. If you love clowns, circuses, farce, and ridiculous situations this is a variation of Ms. Austen’s work like none you have ever seen before.

Ms. Hamill is a highly regarded playwright who has been lauded for her whacky adaptations of the classics: “Vanity Fair” (Thackeray), “The Seagull” (Chekov), “Sense and Sensibility” (Austen), among others. “Pride and Prejudice is the latest of her inventions to be staged, and Seattle Rep’s production is it’s second outing.

Emily Chisholm (Jane), Kjerstine Anderson (Lizzy), Hana Lass (Lydia), Rajeev Varma (Mr. Bennet), and Cheyenne Casebier (Mrs. Bennet) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Upon entering the theatre, you’ll suspect that something different is going on here. The stage is fully revealed. No curtains or backdrop create an illusion. Instead, Scenic Designer John McDermott has filled the cavernous space with the oddest assortment of “things”. There’s a ship’s bell, an old Victrola, costumes hanging all over the place, a massive pianoforte from another era, a row of mirrors of the sort used by actors to apply makeup. If you wonder why they and all the other things are there, keep wondering. There’s little to explain their significance and there’s little need for that as the play progresses.

From the opening moments, chaos reigns. Actors run about, emotions are oversized, lots of noise, cross dressing, etc. The only thing you won’t find is subtlety. Director Amanda Dehnert has made sure of all of that.

If you like the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers with a bit of Monte Python thrown in, you’ll find plenty to like here. There’s lots of action; there appears to be little coordination. But that’s not a flaw. It’s a carefully contrived mechanism to reinforce the humor. So too is the outsized emotion. This is broad humor…very broad. If insanity on stage is not your thing, skip this. Otherwise, enjoy the romp.

Through October 29 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206 443-2222 or SEATTLEREP.ORG.

“Double Feature” offered by Forward Flux Productions

It is indeed a double feature being offered at West of Lenin these days. Forward Flux, a relative newcomer to the Seattle theatre scene has staged two one-act plays that couldn’t be more different but which, in combination, offer something for everyone. There’s friction to be worked out in an all-girls rock band in the first piece “la moriposas Y los muertos”. There’s a sweet love story told with two good actors and a ukulele player in “No more Sad Things.”

My favorite was “No More Sad Things.” It’s a finely faceted little jewel, performed on a minimalist stage with a gifted ukulele musician charting the love story of two characters who would inevitably be seen by society as inappropriate for one another.

It’s not that the male (Lance Valdez) is Hawaiian and the female (Kiki Abba) is a sad little white woman, escaping from what is alluded to as a difficult mainland life. Oh no! It’s that this Hawaiian is 15 years old and our vacationer is 32. Now those of us who have been to Maui know that it’s a romantic place, but really . . .a grown woman with a barely pubescent teenager! Oh yes, and in this work, the relationship is beautiful even magical.

A factor that makes it so is the ukulele music that accompanies the action. Nabilah Ahmed with her instrument and sweet voice is always there, circling the lovers, observing them, all the while singing and playing her ukulele so beautifully. Judging by the stillness of the audience, I am guessing that everyone was as enchanted as I was. This production brings some of the magic of Maui right here to Seattle. It’s a real winner.

“la moriposas Y los muertos” offers a different kind of music. This is the story of a three-piece female rock band, a band that is looking for its big break, and meantime creating music almost too loud for this space. The drama offers an examination of sibling rivalry inevitable among the players. It highlights their driving ambition and examines their cultural heritage. Much of the script is in Spanish, a factor that makes it more than a little daunting for the non-Spanish speakers in the audience. If live rock concerts are your fare, you’ll like this.

Through Oct. 7 at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36 St., Seattle, 206 352-1777, Forward Flux Productions.

“Relativity” at Taproot Theatre

“Relativity” Now there’s a concept with two distinct meanings. And it’s that dual conception that’s at the heart of this clever play by Mark St. Germain. “Relativity” can be used in relation to family members, but it is also the Einstein’s theory that upended the world of physics and put him in a class with Copernicus, Newton and the other truly great theoreticians through history.

This play imagines a late-in-life encounter between Einstein and a mature woman who claims to be the daughter that he fathered in 1902. Throughout his lifetime, Einstein never referred to her. Shortly after her supposed birth he published the E=mc2 papers that crowned his genius. This is a play that explores the relationship between genius and compassion, between greatness and goodness.

The now mature daughter (well played by Candace Vance) shows up one day at Einstein’s lodgings. Of course he denies any relationship, and of course she presses her case claiming to have been adopted and to have found letters that prove her relationship to Einstein. During their fraught encounter the issue of commitment is central. What does one owe to one’s work and what to one’s family? Must genius be sacrificed for quotidian concerns?

Einstein admits he made the decision to devote his life to his work not his family. And how can anyone say that was the wrong decision? So many other issues related to the worth of a human life find expression here as the two are embroiled in their struggle.

The tension is broken time and again by the entry of Einstein’s housekeeper, Miss Dukas. As Pam Nolte plays her she’s a presence to be reckoned with. Her role is not just sweeping floors and making meals. She’s there to protect the great man, and she takes her role seriously. The interplay between Nolte as Ms. Dukas and Candace Vance as the purported daughter is delicious.

Dennis Bateman as Einstein well captures the genius of the scientist and the cluelessness of the human being. All he wants is to be left alone so he can think and imagine new concepts.

Mark Lund’s staging of this production is particularly effective. Einstein’ study is crammed with books and papers as we would imagine it. No curtain separates it from the audience. On entry, the audience finds a stage bathed in blue lights with mathematical formulas written on floors, walls and furniture. It’s a great effect.

Through Oct. 21, at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, 206 781-9707 or box@taproottheatre.org.