The King Stag by Shelly Berc & Andrei Belgrader, from the Original Play by Carlo Gozzi, Directed by Andrei Belgrader, Seattle Repetory Theatre, September 24-October 22, 2005
Weird season at the Rep so far - the first production was a puppet show, which puts a distance between actor and viewer, while the second is commedia dell'arte, another old form - one which brings audience and actors together closer, but which comes with its own requirements and limitations.
And it's an odd venue for what should be a sprawling, engaging form of humor - the Bagley Wright theater is a volumous space, and despite putting audience members on stage and sending cast members into the audience, it is a tough distance to bridge. Add to that that it has a cold opening (a man-servant pulls the huge parrot cage of his transformed magical master, and then "wams up" the audience), makes it a tough climb upward. And add to that the fact the play itself is a 21st century adaption of an 18th century play of a 16th century artform. And lets not start on the plethora of Italian names. The play already has a number of hurdles to vault.
And the play itself is an odd duck, such that you're not sure what parts belong to which era. There is broad humor, and some of the language is questionable for younger viewers, while the action takes place in wide strokes that is more direct and kid-oriented. The villain is abusive in ways that are uncomfortable, and his stutter, while important part of the plot, encourages guilty laughter from the audience (though never sympathy).
The plot is this - The evil chancellor sets up for the good king to marry the chancellor's daughter, who in turn loves another. The King is wise and good, in part due to two magical gifts given him by the wizard (now turned into a parrot). One gift is a lie detector, the other a spell that lets the user's spirit posess the body of a dead creature. Using the first, the King knows that the Chancellor's daughter is in love with another, and that the daughter of another advisor is his true love. The Chancellor uses the second gift to trap the King's spirit in a deer, and then take up residence in the King's body, claiming the other advisor's daughter, who realizes that not all is right. The plot resolves with a complete magus ex machina ending in which the true lovers are reunited, evil is punished, and the audience is sent out with something weirdly appropriate by Neil Diamond.
The posession is handled very nimbly with masks. When I saw the masks, I winced in that this was one more element between the actor and the viewer, but like the stuttering villain, it proves to be needed, and pulls off very neatly the switching identities. Much of the rest of the stagecraft is spinning building elements, overdone in places, and the costuming is two parts Dr. Seuss, and two parts raided from the alien species on the original Star Trek series.
With so many challenges, the play rests heavily on its actors, and after a slow start, they perform incredibly well. As the evil, stuttering, abusive chancellor, R. Hamilton Wright commands the stage and makes the play his character's story, relishing in his evil and eventually taking the fall for it. Micheal Urie and Sarah Rudinoff also get high marks for their work. Urie is both the manservant/clown charged with flirting with the audience at the start, as well as the advisor (beneath another mask) whose daughter marries the king. Rudinoff takes a secondary role (as another of the candidates for marriage), and delivers a Bette-Midleresque performance.
So, does the play succeed? The first act is overly long, leading up to the posession, while the second, resolving the situation, feels truncated, too short for the questions and opportunities that come out of the first act. The actors are up to the task of the script, but the script feels like an odd hybrid of different centuries, a theatrical chimera. The house was light (another problem with the huge theater), so go for the actors and don't sweat too much about the plot.
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