Chris Bennion

Mourning Becomes Electra
ACT Theatre
700 Union St, 292-7676.
$32.50-$44 (21 and under, $10). Through May 19.

Eugene O'Neill appropriated Aeschylus' Oresteia to paste together this intense three-hour-long soap opera, and all of the naughty, blood-drenched fun of ancient Greek legend is intact: suicide, insanity, murderous plots, obsessive musings about death and revenge, and a bunch of blood relatives who are just a tad too affectionate, if you get my drift.

Take the elder son, Orin Mannon, for example. He just got in from the war (the American Civil one) and he's got this gaping head wound--but even with that he spends far more time with his melon buried in mom's lap than seems healthy for a man his age. His younger sister, Lavinia, is an austere and stoic bitch with a trunk full of issues, and she's as over-fond of daddy as Orin is of mom. Lavinia's time is mostly spent nursing a two-mile-wide grudge against blasé and tortured mamma Mannon (Jane Alexander), and mom spends most of her time getting down and dirty with a dashing clipper ship captain, who also happens to be related somehow. Think Dynasty in corsets.

O'Neill took himself very seriously, and his self-consciousness is reflected in this work: It's moody, imposing, overblown, and clunky. This play is packed with distracting details--like the captain's relation to the Mannons--that have no real bearing on the plot. The melodrama is thick enough to choke a horse, and I can't help but wonder how this intimidating piece would be different--and possibly improved--if a lighter approach were taken and the play's inherent camp were given free reign. But even played straight, this baby really cooks once it gets going. There is something strangely fun and satisfying about watching this thoroughly unlovable and murderous clan slowly, inexorably ruin themselves. It's a dark and engaging adventure, its severities inevitably fun and its pretenses forgivable. ADRIAN RYAN


Verbatim

Annex Theatre at Northwest Asian-American Theatre
409 Seventh Ave S, 728-0933.
$12 general/$7 student. Through May 19.

"It's not who I am; it's how I make my money," says a $250-an-hour escort (Kate Czajikowski) in the first half of the Annex Theatre's new production, Verbatim. Director Tom Milewski was inspired to create this documentary theater piece by the book Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. It was cast in October, with the six ensemble performers participating in interviewing Seattleites about their jobs. Bret Fetzer and Tom Milewski then whittled the interviews down from 70 hours of tape into an artful and intelligent collage, which starts out with a deceptively light touch and grows into a complex and moving portrait of how work reflects, confines, and represents who we are and how the world sees us.

The set is a simple overlap of scrims and a smattering of chairs with the speakers' names and occupations projected behind them as they speak. The six performers cover a lot of ground--31 characters in all--superbly capturing the vocal tics of each speaker. They play minimum-wage slaves, card dealers, booksellers, former dot-commers, strippers, librarians, firefighters, teachers, and a silhouetted futurist. Dina Maugeri plays a pathologist who moonlights as a stripper and says, "Both jobs I'm working with stiffs." Patrick Sexton's cop, Rigo, is excellent; Ed Hawkins is touching as a youth counselor grappling with meaning and futility; and Chris Dietz's labor union organizer, Wes, is smart and knowing. Gretchen Douma, who makes her Annex debut, is a find, playing a pushy but adorable small-business owner and Cary, a tough-minded and tender-hearted stay-at-home mom.

Verbatim crackles with wit and humanity, building up to a completely organic emotional payoff spun directly from the mouths of its interview subjects. NATE LIPPENS


Song of Songs

Akropolis Performance Lab at Theatre 4
Seattle Center House
$10 general/$8 students. Through May 19.

I have to admit some prejudice here: I'm no fan of the Bible. It's like the standard song "My Funny Valentine" in that there are hundreds of interpretations and I hate all of them. But I promised to give it a try. Akropolis Performance Lab director Joseph Lavy has taken the Biblical poetry of Song of Songs--the erotically charged religious text that doesn't ever even mention God (as opposed to all that Old & New Testament SM)--and spliced bits of Pablo Neruda's poetry and Dante into it, creating an hour-long performance piece beholden to famed avant-garde director Jerzy Grotowski's ideas about theatrical physicality. I'm a fan of Neruda's poetry, and if I have to endure the Bible, Song of Songs is definitely the place to be (there are no "begets" and no Almighty smiting).

Song of Songs follows the tragic consequences of unrequited love and blinding passion when a celebration honoring Solomon (Nathan Emmons) is disrupted by a mysterious woman, Judith (Holly Flowers), who is part storytelling oracle and part seductress. She weaves a story of desire and love, of the Lover (Brynna Jourden) and the Beloved (Eric Mayer). This is all done in verse and a cappella singing. The songs are in Ladino, a medieval Spanish dialect. Ladino is not a lovely language, and the overwrought movement during the songs gives most of the singing a tentative quality. The staging takes a sex-drenched story and drains the passion from it, replacing it with mannered stylization. Jourden and Mayer do an admirable job of sparking some erotic heat, but it never ignites. The framing device brings the narrative flow up short, and the bits of Neruda's poetry feel unnecessary, which is not something I would have ever imagined saying. The Akropolis Performance Lab obviously made Song of Songs as a labor of love, but for me it was just laborious. NATE LIPPENS