Cathay: Three Tales of China - The puppets are pretty, but the story is thin. Chris Bennion

Cathay: Three Tales of China
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through Oct 9.

The puppets upstage the plot in Cathay, a trio of stories about Xi'an, China. The first involves an ancient king and his lowborn consort, Lady Yang, whose greedy brother ruins the kingdom. With rebellion among the citizens and barbarians at the gates, Lady Yang is forced to commit ritual suicide to appease the malcontents. The second story involves a humble Chinese family, destroyed by the Japanese invasion during World War II. The final tale takes place in a modern skyscraper hotel.

Sound interesting? It isn't. The puppets are pretty, but the story is thin—I wish writer Ping Chong had spent as much time on the text as the Shaanxi Folk Art Theater and the Carter Family Puppet Ensemble did on the visuals. The pacing drags and the voiceover dialogue is interrupted by odd pauses that kill whatever meager momentum the story had collected. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, the extended sex scene between the king and Lady Yang is less erotic than—and about as funny as—the puppet humping in Team America.

But the puppets are really great, especially when the production is futzing with limited stage perspective. One scene takes a bird's-eye view of two characters at a table, with appropriately foreshortened design. Another foregrounds a love scene in an elevator while tiny puppets move around on balconies in the distance.

The first play of David Esbjornson's first season as artistic director at the Rep is a disappointment—but he didn't pick it, so the Seattle theater community will have to wait until next week, when The King Stag opens, to cast hasty (and, knowing us, probably hostile) judgment on his first effort. BRENDAN KILEY

Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Strawberry Theatre Workshop
at Richard Hugo House
Through Oct 9.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist debuted in 1970, less than a year after the dubious event (and subsequent police cover-up) named in the title. The play is razor-sharp, extremely funny, and, as the Strawberry Theater Workshop gang really, really wants you to know, desperately relevant to present-day America. Because—I'm not sure if you noticed—but our government fucking sucks.

In 1969 the Italian government sucked, too—so much so that a few disgruntled Milanese terrorists decided to blow up some bankers. This prompted police investigators to toss an (innocent) anarchist out of a window and pass it off as a suicide.

As directed by Gabriel Baron, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is 98 percent brilliant political farce and 2 percent distracting, patronizing brouhaha. The subtle yet manic comedy (expertly executed by a fine cast) highlights the absurdity of bureaucratic corruption with painful perfection. Unfortunately, due to a colossal lack of faith in its audience's powers of inference, this production is liberally augmented with oversimplified Iraq references and irresponsible, too-easy comparisons between Rumsfeld and Mussolini. The parallels are there, of course, but pointing them out is unnecessary and distracts from the play's complexity. Accidental Death of an Anarchist ends in a tense, prescient standoff (involving both left vs. right and left vs. left), which is immediately and tragically undermined by a pedantic, moral-of-the-story monologue—the anticlimactic drudgery of a great comedian explaining a great joke. But, like I said, it's only the last 2 percent.

The program offers this quote from playwright Dario Fo: "What I hope to do is involve the audience in a sense of moral indignation against injustice, not with the theatrical equivalent of political pamphlets, but with entertainments that have a sense of elegance." This production almost succeeds, but it's really just a very, very elegant pamphlet. LINDY WEST

Money & Run: Juke Box Momma
Theater Schmeater
Through Oct 1.

Oh, how I long for the Money & Run I once knew! The one that dazzled and blazed! Through misty eyes I can see it still: that enflagrante redneck carnivale of campy '70s spoof, Def Leppard–rich, loud, and drunken as a ball game, a late-night row of ever-dependable theatrical satisfaction! (And those meticulous slow-mo fight scenes! Wow!) Today's Money & Run, Juke Box Momma, sputters and spurts and mumbles its lines; it's not sure where it's going, it's forgotten who it is. Between Money (Peggy Gannon) and Run (Alex Samuels) there is no chemistry, no heat. The trailer-park drawls seem inexpert—lines are lost by the bucketful. Shannon Kipp has a consummate grasp of Big Momma Bob, for better or worse. Sarah Papineau's got a certain charisma, but I long to see her shine in something bigger, something less "day-old bread." The laughs are mostly very big and gratuitous. (There were some obvious diehard fans in the alarmingly sparse audience, to be sure: 90 percent of the laughs came from them, just a fraction too early, and extremely loud.) I once bitched that success was spoiling Money & Run, that the productions were waxing too slick. I was a fool.

Of course, it was inevitable. The long-running M&R series has been successful: But it's a sitcom spoof, after all, and sitcoms—particularly the '70s–'80s, Dukes of Hazzard–ish sort—are born with finite shelf lives. How long can a sitcom spoof endure? Idioms change. Concepts evolve. Or don't. ADRIAN RYAN