Macbeth

Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall

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Through May 20.

I know, I know—the opera is doing Verdi's Macbeth and not Shakespeare's Macbeth and Verdi himself never read the original play until after he'd written his version. But as an operagoer more steeped in Shakespeare than Verdi (as I suspect many operagoers are), it's hard to watch Macbeth without wishing it had taken better advantage of the dramatic banquet offered by its source material. The program features an interview with director Bernard Uzan, who answers the question "Are you studying the Shakespeare text?" with "Not really." It shows, Bernie. It shows.

For example: One of the best moments in the story comes after Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth is dead. The tyrant king meditates on the folly of human endeavor, saying that life "is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." That moment is strong and necessary—it humanizes Macbeth. We pity him and are in turn disgusted by our pity for a butcher. Uzan undersells the moment by letting Macbeth hurry through it, waving his hand dismissively: Yeah, life is fleeting. No biggie. The production teems with these small, but frustrating, missed opportunities. Then there's the set, a sterile, metallic box (isn't opera the medium of extravagant, wowee-zowee sets?) that partially redeems itself in a single stunning, bloody effect during Lady Macbeth's "out damned spot" speech.

As for the music: The chorus soars to harrowing pathos in the lament for King Duncan, and Andrea Gruber (Lady Macbeth), Joseph Calleja (Macduff), and Burak Bilgili (Banquo) sing like demons, especially Bilgili, who has a gut-stirring low end. The original Macbeth belongs to the ambitious Lady Macbeth and Gruber does right by stealing our attention with her muscular voice and vicious energy. BRENDAN KILEY

King Henry

Ghost Light Theatricals at Odd Duck Studio

Through May 21.

You can't understand politics—either the underhanded backroom variety or the good-fight aspirations—without reading the Henriad, the heart of which is Henry V. This isn't to say that it is Shakespeare's best or most entertaining play; it's the muscle, the... necessary bit. Falstaff, the soul of the historicals, dies offstage first thing and the rest of the play seems to be about luck-inspired manifest destiny—character motivations and plot are trumped by the improbability of events. Briefly: It's a bitch to do right.

Monty Taylor's adaptation cuts the cast from almost 40 actors to 6, excises a huge chunk of the script, and employs a questionable number of drama-school tricks—multiple line deliveries and other arty choices. Oh, and it recasts the characters as hoboes: King Henry has a cartoonish makeup "beard" and characters stumble onstage holding bagged bottles of wine, huddling around the sparse set's glowing trash barrel for warmth.

But somehow, it works. The action of Henry V would be impossible to follow just from this production, but the smorgasbord of conceptual tics wisely highlights the important themes. Aaron Wagner's Henry is visually terrific: Although he sometimes plows through the Elizabethan, his body language broadcasts both hobo and your majesty. Henry's "love scene" with Katherine (Annalisa Derr), possibly Shakespeare's worst, becomes vivid with flirty French-exchange-student glee. The show-stealer, though, is Viktoria Marton as the delusionally self-satisfied Welsh Captain Fluellen, who speaks like the kid from Dexter's Laboratory and went to the Don Knotts School of Kung Fu. When Fluellen beats up another character with a leek, you remember the unsinkable Bardic truth: The material is so strong that it can survive almost any amount of experimentation and come out grinning. PAUL CONSTANT

Miss Witherspoon

ACT Theatre

Through May 28.

Miss Witherspoon is a liberal battle cry disguised as comedy, which would be fine, if only it were funnier.

A grumpy 20th-century suicide with a "tweedy aura," Miss Witherspoon (Anne Allgood) is stuck in the afterlife, refusing to be reincarnated. Life's a bitch and then you die. Why should she have to do it again? Because, according to her divine Indian interlocutor, Maryamma (Christine Calfas, the most comically precise actor in the production), Miss Witherspoon has to be reincarnated until she achieves nirvana, dissolves into the general soul, and elevates the collective human consciousness. Witherspoon just wants to rest and she begs Maryamma to tuck her into Jewish heaven (since the Jews don't believe in an afterlife, Maryamma says it's "like prolonged general anesthesia").

The play has a few surprises (Witherspoon commits suicide at two weeks old by throwing herself at a vicious dog), but at its worst, it feels like The Opinions of Christopher Durang, Awkwardly Stuffed into the Mouths of His Characters and Peppered With a Few Wacky Moments to Keep Our Attention. Wilder, Miller, Shakespeare, and Chekhov are name-checked (Durang is co-chair of Juilliard's playwriting program); potshots at the Bush administration are taken. Witherspoon thinks the Old Testament is weird (duh), Gandalf (in full Lord of the Rings regalia! hee-haw!) insists we get over our Hobbesian tribalism "and embrace our interdependence," and Jesus (as black woman! craaaazy!) rails against the Christian right and even Christianity itself, saying "I am only one of the faces of God." These ideological indulgences would be tolerable, maybe even enjoyable, if they were couched inside a surprising, imaginative comedy. They aren't. BRENDAN KILEY