ACT Theatre
Through June 27.

Ghost Light Theatricals
Through June 20.

Pinter: Night, The Collection, The Lover
Sight Nine Theatre Company
Through June 19.

Quickies Vol. 5
Live Girls! Theater
Through June 19.

Harold Pinter's dialogue stretches taut like a stocking; small rips become gaping holes, revealing all sorts of alarming and tantalizing things underneath. Sight Nine Theatre Company has tackled a trio of the British playwright's one-acts (Night, The Collection, and The Lover), all dealing with memory, lies, and self-deceptions. Though the actors' accents are a bit stiff, they've avoided the pitfall of playing a vague, ambient sense of menace, and they find humor in the repetitions and roundabouts of Pinter's evasive characters. But oddly, they don't know how to play the pauses--oddly, because that's what Pinter is most famous for. But the actors only seem comfortable not speaking when they have specific actions (a couple flirts wordlessly while playing a bongo drum, for example). When it's all about waiting for what will be said next, about filling that anticipatory moment with expectation, suspicion, or dread, the actors consistently skip through to the next line, making the plays feel flat and brittle. The evening has its virtues, but when it's over, you feel undernourished.

Another trio of one-acts by another British playwright fares much worse. However, it must be said that as tricky as Pinter is, Caryl Churchill's Heart's Desire, Blue Kettle, and Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen are extraordinarily difficult, demanding both technical skill and emotional richness. In one play, a homecoming repeatedly retraces its steps and sets off in new directions; in another, a man persuades a series of elderly women that he's the son they gave up for adoption, but as the scenes unfold, more and more words in the dialogue are replaced by the words "blue" and "kettle," suggesting both a children's game and a neurological disorder. (The third play is less formally experimental, depicting a father-son conflict in an ecologically damaged world.) If the plays aren't technically precise, they lose their shape--but if they aren't also deeply felt, they lose their purpose. Ghost Light Theatricals' production is sloppy and shallow. A glimmer of what the plays could be comes through, but it's pretty dim.

Crossbreeding Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt with the Pacific Northwest doesn't seem like a bad idea--the titular hero tells elaborate lies, which fits in with the tall-tale tradition of Paul Bunyan. Each scene is almost its own little play: Peer cooks up a whopper about a deer that got away, kidnaps a bride on her wedding day, woos and abandons a virtuous virgin, abandons a troll bride at the altar, becomes a slave trader and an arms dealer, and much else besides. Eric Overmeyer, whose previous plays include the ever-popular On the Verge and In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, wrote this adaptation with local diehards R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette in mind. Alki hews pretty close to Ibsen's plot but switches locales to the New World (trading Morocco for the Amazon, for example).

Unfortunately, a story this sprawling and ambitious needs a disciplined hand, and Overmeyer has always been more interested in linguistic flourish than narrative drive. Even his trademark word-spinning feels lackluster; phrases are repeated weakly, clichés are trotted out but given no particular new spin, quotes from songs pointlessly litter the dialogue. Stabs at satire feel tacked on (even though the original had a satirical bent already); the philosophical musings collapse under their own muddled weight. The production never latches on to a style that can encompass the mix of fantastic and prosaic realities. Presumably director Kurt Beattie was drawn to the play's potential for theatrical spectacle--and vivid moments arise, particularly a star-speckled sky at the end. But it's a long wade through a lot of muck to get there.

Quickies Vol. 5, a collection of short plays from Live Girls!, has no high ambitions. The plays are brief, reach for a sliver of emotion or humor, and more often than not succeed, thanks to consistently clear direction (from six different directors), spare and simple production values, and performances that don't try to force the plays beyond what they are. A missing dog reveals deep flaws in a marriage; three female astronauts are abandoned on the Moon; monologues by Charlotte Brontë and the daughter of an English professor intertwine. On top of this, hostess Kate Jaeger and cohorts perform goofball bits and vamps in between the plays, cultivating a cheerful, game-for-anything atmosphere in the tiny Live Girls! venue. Nothing that will change your life, but a pleasant evening of theater nonetheless.

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