The Beau Show Richard Hugo House
Through July 31.

Enchanted April ACT Theatre
Through Aug 12.

The Neighbors Next Door R.E.D.
Through July 31.

For the sake of this review format, I can usually manage to trump up some theme, however gossamer, to weave together the week's varied offerings. This week, the diversity of plays defies me, other than to prompt pleasant thoughts about living in a city with such theatrical range.

The Beau Show takes place on a small stage in the cozy Richard Hugo House cabaret space. It's a series of comic monologues and sketches from a series of ornate personae, ranging from the Rev. Billy Bob of the Church of the Holy Cow to Leonardo da Vinci to Bill Clinton. Were these characters and imitations performed by a troupe of actors, it would be pretty unremarkable---but instead, it's a series of marvelously articulated puppets created by Beau Bond. His creations range from a box containing only the bridge of a nose and a pair of moving eyes to puppets with fully jointed fingers that can be moved individually. Some puppets are tiny, some loom above the stage; da Vinci's face is a realistically detailed human face, while Rev. Billy Bob's face barely has a nose--the differing styles change the flavor of the different bits. So while the sometimes sharp, sometimes thin humor generally dwells within an anarchist-libertarian-prankster framework, the sort of jokes that Ken Kesey might have cracked at a Burning Man open-mic competition--a narcissist runs for president, arguing that it's time for a real puppet government---the puppetry delights and surprises throughout the evening. (Though it's probably a good thing that the show isn't terribly long.)

Seattle's head librarian Nancy Pearl apparently has a 50-page rule--if a book hasn't grabbed you in the first 50 pages, you can put it down. I feel the same way about theater; if the first act of a play hasn't offered anything of interest (be it an interesting plot, engaging actors, or theatrical spectacle), then intermission is your opportunity to get the hell out of there. The Neighbors Next Door, a new play by Gilbert Martin, concerns a young husband and wife with crazy next-door neighbors who keep trying to worm their way into the young couple's life. If the second act has any surprises, humor, or insights into human character, I don't know what they are, because I left at intermission.

I did not expect to be drawn into the lives of a quartet of unhappy upper- and middle-class English women on an Italian vacation, but the performances in ACT Theatre's Enchanted April are so perfectly pitched that I was won over. This recent adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel follows whimsical Lotty Wilton (played by Julie Briskman) and conservative Rose Arnott (Suzanne Bouchard), two middle-aged women in unhappy marriages seeking escape. Lotty drags the reluctant Rose into a scheme to rent an Italian villa for the month of April; to make the trip more affordable, they advertise for companions and find languid Lady Caroline Bramble (Deborah Fialkow) and curmudgeonly Mrs. Graves (Suzy Hunt). Of course, everyone will end up transformed by the Italian sunshine, and those transformations are telegraphed pretty far in advance by Matthew Barber's capable but not terribly inventive script (there are a couple of unpredictable turns, but they're disappointments rather than surprises).

It doesn't matter. Cleanly directed by Werner Shook, Enchanted April is an opportunity for actors, and the entire cast (including David Pichette, Michael Winters, R. Hamilton Wright, and Marianne Owen) is excellent. I get a little weary of seeing some of these faces--it sometimes seems like Pichette, Wright, and Owen have, among them, been in every damn show ACT has ever done--but this play, which demands not emotional fireworks but a restrained emotional precision, demonstrates what a fine bunch of actors they are. Lotty's irrepressible optimism could be cloying, but Briskman has the audience eating out of her hand; Bouchard brings a quiet dignity to Rose that proves honestly touching. Fialkow and Hunt bring formidable comic powers to bear on their sardonic characters. The costume, set, sound, and lighting design are all expert and lovely; one transition so gorgeously evokes a change in the evening light reflected across the stones of a patio that my heart leapt. The ending of Enchanted April is too pat, but because of that moment--and many others, be they farcical or graceful--I suspect you will be as inclined toward forgiveness as I was.

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