The Violet Hour
ReAct at Richard Hugo House
Through Aug 7.
The Violet Hour is a tease of a title, coming from the man who wrote the big gay baseball play Take Me Out. In this newer play, Richard Greenberg isn't trying to make you think lavender: "Violet" really refers to the purple prose of Denny McCleary (Andrew Peterson), a callow Princeton grad in search of a publisher in the spring of 1919.
Conveniently, Denny has an upper-crusty publisher friend, John Pace Seavering (Jeffrey Grimm). But John is loyal to his memoir-scribbling mistress, the singer Jessie Brewster (Amber Wolfe), and he only has the cash to publish one book. (Well, that's the conceit, anyway—by the end of the play this obstacle has miraculously dissolved.) The main actors start out constrained by the period setting; luckily, there's also an unstable charmer (the entrancing Emjoy Gavino), a stray office assistant (ShawnJ West, who is pleasant but stumbling), and a mysterious office machine that spews pages and pages of nonfiction from the late 20th century.
The magical faxes from the future are a plot contrivance designed to get the characters to think about their lives in retrospect, and I'll grudgingly admit that it works. The machine encourages Greenberg to play with vernacular (the slang of the future hilariously infects the speech of these Jazz Age idealists), as well as permitting him some jabs at contemporary academia. The huge chasm between the historical fiction of the first act, when the machine is mostly ignored, and the science fiction of the second act, when everybody devours its pages, is jarring. But the shift in tone positively rescues the cast, who (with the exception of Gavino, sparkling throughout her Plaza Hotel mania) were all struggling to make the antiqued dialogue sound convincing. By the end of the play, you'll have mostly forgotten the stilted opening scenes, and you'll buy into the absorbing melodrama of these ambitious kids, on the edge of becoming larger than life. ANNIE WAGNER
Taproot Theatre Company
Through Aug 20.
The Fantasticks is a thoroughly fucked-up piece of musical theater, which, true to Taproot's Christian stylings, has been sanded, glossed, and gilded with happy exclamation points. In a legendary display of either brilliance or staggering bad taste, depending on whom you ask, the play's original version included the rousing tune, "It Depends on What You Pay," featuring the lyrics: "Rape! R-a-a-a-pe! Raa-aa-aa-pe!... You can get the rape emphatic. You can get the rape polite. You can get the rape with Indians: a very charming sight." Not surprisingly, the song was later rewritten, with "rape" replaced by the more palatable "abduction." Guess which version Taproot picked.
Personally, I find the lack of rapin' in this production more offensive than I would its inclusion. Call it what you like (rape, abduction, cuddle party, whatever), but the fact is, in either incarnation, The Fantasticks is about a parent who pays a middle-aged man to kidnap a 16-year-old girl in order to coerce her into marrying a 20-year-old stranger. While the original had the integrity to call a rape a rape, affording the discerning audience a degree of critical distance, the declawed "abduction" song is all fun and games, and we're expected to chuckle right along. Worse still, after said abduction, the girl falls in love with her captor (aren't women foolish?). When he was her rapist, this twist was dark, interesting, and fraught with commentary. But don't worry—now he's her abductor—so it's romantic and hot and A-okay. Yuck.
Questionable gender politics aside, though, this show is good. The cast members prove themselves apt comedians and competent singers: Kelly Balch, as the Mute, is particularly charming, and Jeff Berryman's baritone (velvety!) is simultaneously comforting and sinister. Catchy songs, witty jokes, pretty costumes—if you're a musical-theater fan, The Fantasticks won't disappoint. And for those of you hankering for a nice "Rape Ballet," pick up the original 1960 soundtrack and hear the late Jerry Orbach croon, "Romantic rape: Done while canoeing on a moonlit creek..." Ah, love. LINDY WEST
The Three Musketeers
Theater Schmeater at Volunteer Park
Through Aug 6.
The crowd was sizable for this outdoor production of The Three Musketeers, but the few audience members cradling the new Harry Potter book were the play's best barometer. They endorsed the play by simply being there, instead of plowing through the novel in a quieter corner of the park. They critiqued it by intermittently reading through the production's chatty bits.
Dashing young D'Artagnan goes to Paris hoping to join the King's Musketeers and immediately entangles himself in the machinations of the diabolical Cardinal Richelieu and his murderous aide, Lady de Winter. D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers (a drunkard, a lothario, and an aspiring priest) foil the cardinal, rescue kidnapped ladies, cross swords with the bad guys, and deliver classic action-hero quips. ("You are drunk, sir." "And you are ugly—by tomorrow, I'll be sober.")
David Richmond's comic adaptation of the Dumas romance nicely balances the swashbuckling with enough court intrigue to lend emotional stakes to the fight scenes, but director Beth Peterson doesn't seem entirely at home in her outdoor theater. She uses her setting well, hiding actors in rhododendron bushes and spreading fight scenes across the grass. But an outdoor audience is neither captive nor intimate—Peterson could have trimmed some speeches and staged dialogue-heavy moments in a more attention-grabbing manner. The actors seem uncomfortable being as big as they are, but their characters' colorful personalities need to be even bigger to compete with barking dogs and airplanes.
Quibbles aside, the swordfights are good, the jokes get chuckles, and the spectacle of plumed hats and rapiers attracted a big, appreciative crowd for a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon. BRENDAN KILEY