by Bret Fetzer

Black Coffee

ACT Theatre

Through May 2.

The Last Enemy

Ethnic Cultural Theatre

Through April 25.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Seattle Shakespeare Company

Through May 8.

Flaming Box of Stuff

Open Circle Theater

Through April 24.

As ACT's production of Black Coffee unfolded before me, I found myself perplexed. Not by Agatha Christie's mystery--someone in a household of snippy Brits has committed murder and stolen a secret formula--but by a much larger one: What the hell was happening onstage? The impeccable cast (a compilation of Seattle all-stars, ranging from Laurence Ballard to R. Hamilton Wright, with fringe standouts like Ian Bell and Mary Jane Gibson on top of that) certainly wasn't playing this old chestnut straight--but "parody" would be too strong a word to describe their performances, as parody requires some point of view about the conventions or assumptions involved, or something, anything, about the work being parodied. In ACT's production, the actors have polished their own variation on a kind of PBS high camp, just arch enough to say "I'm not taking this stuff seriously" but articulating nothing else. I laughed, particularly at the glee David Pichette took in playing finicky Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, but the experience of watching Black Coffee faded from my memory even while it was happening.

If Black Coffee was skillfully insincere, The Last Enemy was just the opposite. Previously performed in the Middle East and at the United Nations, The Last Enemy presents two sets of lovers from opposite sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: a teenage Jewish girl who discovers the boy she's pursuing is Arab, and a Jewish man and a Palestinian woman who are both interpreters at a peace conference. Framing these straightforward stories are some ill-conceived quasi-Brechtian interruptions in which the actors become "actors" and a peculiar chorus consisting of a stereotypical Jew, a stereotypical Arab, and a Hitler-like figure spout inflammatory jargon. The young performers throw themselves into their roles with the firm belief that what they're doing is important; unfortunately, their commitment isn't always matched by skill. Still, the romance between the translators (the script's strongest and most subtle story line) receives affecting performances from Adrian Gaeta and Lindsey Desmul, and the play wisely doesn't try to simplify a painfully complex situation--even the more cartoonish devices expand our understanding of the conflict. Maybe I was inordinately grateful for the play's attempt at substance, but I found the ending surprisingly moving.

This is the ninth time that Arne Zaslove has directed some variation on the high-concept mixture of 1950s rock and roll and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's popular story of squabbling lovers, meddling fairies, and amateur actors. You'd think by now he'd have figured out how to give it dramatic drive. There is one promising moment: Helena, well-played by Sienna Harris as a shy, dweebish high-school girl in 1957, is spurned by the guy she loves and sings "I Will Follow Him" (which is from 1963, but oh well). The song would usually seem submissive, but Helena discovers some sexy, aggressive energy. Through the rest of the show, characters follow up speeches with songs mirroring their contents, only with backup singers and less fancy language. Does this redundancy make this three-hour production feel twice as long? Yes. Yes it does.

Though Zaslove has some fun applying shtick to the four mismatched lovers, the rest of the play comes across as a chore he had to get through. Dressing up the king of the fairies as Fonzie may sound funny, but in practice the gimmick falls flat and confuses the story. There's no exciting resonance when Fonzie suddenly turns himself invisible; it clashes with the milieu of the 1950s, as established by everything from Grease to The Girl Can't Help It. To bend the rules of a genre, you've got to exercise some imagination and wit. If what you really want to do is stage a revue of old songs, leave Shakespeare out of it.

Comedy troupe Flaming Box of Stuff, at minimal expense, provides a more satisfying match of content and style. Admittedly, the people involved have fewer obligations and modest ambitions--their new show uses a variety of Western motifs (like wagon trains, shootouts, and campfire storytelling) to spin out a collection of rapid-fire, absurdist sketches. High-energy performances from Kirk Anderson, Val Bush, Troy Fischnaller, Cory Nealy, and Dusty Warren create a loopy world of subverted expectations and skewed psychologies. It's funny and it's cheap. Go.

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