John Ulman

Hamlet

Eclectic Theater Company at Odd Duck Studio

Through Feb 2.

As microbudgeted, not particularly insightful, lead-actor vanity productions of Shakespeare go, this Hamlet is pretty good. The acting is acceptable (Mark Wilt as the lovable blowhard Polonius is lively when he isn't stumbling over his lines, and Justin Tracy as Laertes is good with the language if not so much the standing around). The script, though compressed, isn't mangled. The concept is harmless, if facile (according to the program, the play is about "politics" and the production is about "change"—tell me something Wolf Blitzer doesn't know). So why would you bother to see it?

Because, apart from the drab modern costumes and a couple of guns in the opening scene, director Cara Anderson-Ahrens doesn't get in the way of the play. Hamlet is a creepy, paranoid, Jacobean blowout; the proliferation of ear imagery starts to sound almost obsessive when the play is trimmed. This isn't so much a production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy as a delivery system for an awesome massacre.

Paradoxically, this success may owe something to the throwaway central performance. Rik Deskin (the artistic director of the company) plays Hamlet as a sort of Gen X nonpresence, not so much paralyzed as apathetic. His baby-faced frowns, the way he leans ostentatiously against walls to signal distress—these affectations make Hamlet's misery look like a minor bout of crankiness. He'll get over it as soon as he murders an innocent bystander or two. ANNIE WAGNER

The Retreat from Moscow

ArtsWest

Through Jan 27.

The Retreat from Moscow, an unsexy, understated three-character drama about the breakup of a marriage after 33 years, was written in 1999 and made its Tony-nominated debut in New York in 2003, starring John Lithgow and directed by former Seattle golden boy Daniel Sullivan. This current run at ArtsWest is the first time it has played in Seattle, which is surprising for two reasons. First, The Retreat from Moscow is an unfrilly low-budget piece with no set changes, ready-made for struggling nonprofit theaters. Second, this relatively unknown play is good: I formally apologize for having complained about the prospect of driving to West Seattle to see a play about an old couple.

Englishman William Nicholson wrote the play—the same William Nicholson who wrote Shadowlands and the movies Gladiator and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett vehicles that aren't exactly memorable for their dialogue. But The Retreat from Moscow is all dialogue, a rhetorical tapestry that portrays divorce as a necessary but cruel survival technique perpetrated by one spouse on another—a frontiersman's strategy of leaving the weak behind so the strong can keep moving.

In this production (designed by Pete Rush, Evan Middlesworth, and Craig Wollam), the emotional violence pops out of its environment, an elegant, old-world home embraced by trees. The large picture windows look like light boxes containing saturated landscape photographs. Everything looks like a late, lazy afternoon, and a play like this could become gloppy with drama. But director Carol Roscoe keeps the timing and the transitions swift and no-nonsense. And the actors—Therese Diekhans, James Cowan, and John Wray—are strong enough so you can relax. When Wray's bottled-up old Edward speaks, you lose track of the theater entirely. JEN GRAVES

Swansong

Seattle Shakespeare Company

Through Jan 23.

Swansong is an experiment in thrift. Seattle Shakespeare Company is dark and quiet in the early part of the week, so artistic director Stephanie Shine runs a secondary show (Swansong) on Sunday through Wednesday, and lets Julius Caesar own the weekends. Unexpectedly, Swansong, the little brother, is the better production.

A comedy by Patrick Page about the fraught friendship between William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Swansong is part buddy comedy, part literary exegesis. Bill and Ben get drunk, insult each other in couplets, envy one another's success, and fight about whether the world is beautiful or ugly. Ben is the urbane, ponderous, and contemptuous writer who murdered a man for booing one of his plays. Bill is the opposite—an unschooled, Dionysian country boy who woos women and writes without blotting out any of his lines. "Would he had blotted a thousand!" Jonson growls.

The story is simple, even a little pat—it's the chemistry between the three actors you want to see: Tim Gouran is a naive and happy Shakespeare, Brandon Whitehead is a deliciously snide Jonson, and Ian Bell balances the triumvirate as John Heminges, the actor and editor of the First Folio. In a characteristic moment, Jonson harangues Shakespeare for a line in Julius Caesar that mentions a clock. "Yes?" his friend asks. "There were no clocks in Caesar's Rome!" Jonson roars, Shakespeare looks sheepish, and the actors' glee is palpable. BRENDAN KILEY