Antony and Cleopatra
Consolidated Works
Through June 27.

The Play's the Thing
Intiman Playhouse
Through July 11.

Travels with Charley
Book-It Repertory
Through July 3.

Director John Michael Higgins argues in the program that The Play's the Thing, a jewel of theatrical effervescence, has a Chekhovian emotional scope--though most people would argue that the glory of P. G. Wodehouse's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's farce is precisely that it sets such complexities aside, offering instead a pure frivolous delight. If there are other, more "deep" emotions involved--bitterness, heartbreak, yearning--they're like stars in the night sky that you can see with your peripheral vision, but when you try to focus on them, they vanish.

Which is to say, this production of The Play's the Thing doesn't effervesce with the fizz it deserves, nor does it successfully supplant fizz with an unexpected ache. It's still pretty damn funny--the play is an architectural marvel, meticulously unfolding the story of two playwrights trying to save a young couple from the consequences of the young woman's infidelity--and this Wodehouse guy can turn a witty phrase. Add in Laurence Ballard in top form, sparkling with all the carbonation you could ask for, with Mark Capri wallowing in ham right behind him, and you have a guarantee of at least a dozen full-bodied laughs. The rest of the cast were certainly solid but didn't demonstrate the same fleetness as these two. However, I saw the show on opening night; over the course of the run, the actors may all find their legs and dance.

Travels with Charley isn't a profound piece of literature, but it's certainly timely. John Steinbeck's skeptical but passionate liberalism, phrased in clean, straightforward language, will refresh anyone depressed by the current climate of meaningless claptrap and evasive doubletalk. As he drives across the U.S. with his dog, trying to reconnect with a country he'd captured in novels like The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck muses on war, the environment, hunting, religion, fast food, and the relentless push and pull of restlessness and progress.

Adapter David Quicksall has largely avoided the Book-It mannerisms that irritate some people (myself included) and crafted a lean, straightforward series of episodes. There's no way to avoid the lack of any accumulating plot, so by the end the show feels a bit long, but Travels with Charley is kept vigorous by the excellent cast, led by John Hutton as Steinbeck. One wouldn't wish this fate on anyone, but if Hutton wanted to tour the country doing a one-man Steinbeck show, he could pull it off; his relaxed, easy authority with the author's words and worldview makes him a pleasant companion down any road. With good cheer, David Goldstein takes on the thankless task of playing a blue poodle, while the rest of the troupe deftly slips in and out of multiple characters. Director Jane Jones has drawn detailed but unfussy performances from everyone.

Few would argue that Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's great plays. The muddy plot sprawls across the machinations of Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar, and the rebellious Roman general Pompey. It's a lot of shuttling to and fro between hot, torrid Egypt and cool, martial Rome as Antony is torn between his torrid passion and his political ambitions; he leaves Cleopatra, marries Caesar's sister Octavia, abandons her and returns to Cleopatra, who in turn treats him ambiguously--the diffuse narrative has some good scenes, but never acquires any drive or momentum.

Director John Kaufmann has chosen to paint Rome as austere and puritanical (in a silent scene not in the original, Antony and Octavia have sex through a sheet), while in Egypt everyone lounges half-naked (Antony and Cleopatra romp on a giant waterbed). It's not clear how seriously Kaufmann takes the script; some scenes were played all too sincerely, while others verged on self-parody. But whether Kaufmann's directorial caprices served Shakespeare or not, they were engaging. Erin Jorgensen's melodious marimba made some scenes shimmer; the same messenger (Josh Knisely) provided information in Rome and Egypt, sometimes via psychic premonitions; the battles were portrayed by a sublimely ridiculous machine created by Web Crowell; Heather Hughes, as Cleopatra, was decked out in outfits befitting a 1930s screen siren, which suited Hughes' innate mix of screwball heroine and femme fatale. The play ended up verging on incomprehensible, but these elements and ideas were entertaining on their own terms. I wanted more Kaufmann and a lot less Shakespeare.

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