A play about journalism and Abu Ghraib, starring breasts. Shanes Regan

Absurd Reality Theatre at Theatre Off Jackson
Through Jan 21.

A searing little satire by British writer Peter Morris, Guardians fictionalizes the lives of an infamous American (army grunt Lynndie England) and an infamous Englishman (whoever tricked the Daily Mirror into running falsified photos of a British Abu Ghraib) to score points against the American military, the British press, and the audience's complicity in the abuses of both. Its politics amount to facile finger-wagging, but the play saves itself with vivid, eloquent language.

The "American Girl" in a prison jumpsuit (Gabrielle Schutz) and the foppish "English Boy" in a three-piece suit (Adam Standley) trade monologues about identical subjects from radically different perspectives. She is a brutish, naive hick and he is a brutish, jaded journalist—but they're both entranced by the Iraq war, raw power, rough sex, and pornography. Which is how they both end up stirring controversy over their photographs of torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. Except English Boy's are a sensational fraud and American Girl's are tragically real.

Morris has written two broad caricatures (the rural idiot and the vain, condescending peacock), but his lines are bright and shiny, attractive rhetorical lures. The Girl drawls about Iraqi architecture looking like "a petrified forest of girlie birthday cakes," and the Boy, in a different kind of drawl, talks about "the epistemology of smut"—and then apologizes for being too fancy. Actors Schutz and Standley wisely keep calm and let Morris's language do the work. Standley is especially adroit as the Boy. We hate him, he knows it, and he just doesn't care. BRENDAN KILEY


Balagan Theatre
Through Jan 31.

In Peter Weiss's 1963 play, the inmates at a French insane asylum reenact the murder of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. This madhouse staging is directed by the Marquis de Sade, the French writer famous for his philosophical explorations of sadomasochism, most of which he composed while incarcerated at various prisons and asylums (what he considered research was often construed as sexual assault). One of these facilities was Charenton, historically renowned for pioneering treatments in art therapy.

Weiss's theatrical reenactment of the original, historical reenactment is written in declamatory Brechtian prose punctuated by scrappy Brechtian musical numbers, performed by a dozen and a half actors. When it premiered, Weiss's play-within-a-play was an in-your-face shocker, its Brechtian elements deployed with Artaudian cruelty, to international acclaim. But shock rarely carries over from era to era, and for the past couple decades, Marat/Sade has existed primarily as the go-to piece for large groups of community, student, or fringe actors looking for something edgier than Our Town. Weiss's text is the type of full-immersion performance experience actors dream of. Each of the play's 21 characters remains onstage for the entire show, in all their crazy, tic-ridden glory. And remember: These aren't just actors playing insane-asylum inmates, these are actors playing insane-asylum inmates playing actors. The accumulation of extreme behavior encourages a theatrical "going there" that can be as thrilling for the actors as it is grating for the audience.

Attacking Marat/Sade 45 years after its premiere, Capitol Hill's Balagan Theatre goes balls-out in drama-school asylum mode, with straitjacketed crazies greeting theater entrants "in character" and the whole cast carrying out the spitting/cackling/staggering-crazy-folk shtick through the curtain call. Once upon a time, such insistent characterization, combative eye contact, and riotous fourth-wall demolition must have felt transgressive, even dangerous. This past weekend, it felt a bit like visiting a particularly intense theme restaurant, where the waiters dress like wackos and the theme is kuh-RAZY!

It's not a successful production—attempting to shock 2009 theater audiences with Marat/Sade is like trying to crack up a 2009 comedy audience with "Who's on First?"—but it's quite a spectacle. Balagan's space is small and the cast is huge, and to be submerged for two hours in their insane exertions—including lunatic group-sings, old-timey clowning, aggressive braying, and a staging of the legendary lashing scene so symbolic and choreographed it played like a Masonic rite—feels a bit like witnessing some bizarre and foreign religious ceremony where you don't really know what's going on or why but you can't deny the passion of those involved. Only one of Balagan's actors tempted me to regard his character as an actual mental patient, instead of an actor trying very hard to look like a mental patient: Samuel Hagen, whose controlled and nuanced take on the supporting role of Duperret is the show's tangible highlight, seemingly emanating from another, better production. DAVID SCHMADER

The Servant of Two Masters

Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through Feb 1.

It's sort of genius, actually. The Servant of Two Masters—a 1753 comedy by Carlo Goldoni, drawn from commedia dell'arte—has the potential to be inaccessibly old-timey. You can recognize the funny parts and maybe chuckle. Yes, mistaken identities are wacky. Yes, things certainly do get madcap! But, being several centuries old, it doesn't elicit sincere, involuntary laughter like, say, the latest episode of 30 Rock. Because it's about a 300-year-old Italian clown. Humor evolves, the best humor is relatable, and our relation to 300-year-old Italian clowns is, well, 300 years removed.

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So here's the genius part: Director Dan McCleary reframes the play as an American vaudeville show. Truffaldino the clown is now a little shuffly Buster Keaton dude. Brighella the innkeeper is a Mae West vamp. There is juggling, and tumbling, and accordion, and funny walks, and the old soft-shoe, and that broom-chin thing that circusy people are constantly doing. (You know: Look, there's this broom on my chin!) It's an update and a revival and a throwback all at once.

The Servant of Two Masters is beyond exuberant and incredibly fun. I haven't felt so engaged and included in a theatrical production—especially a comedy—in a long time. Which is weird, because all of Truffaldino's asides, roughly half of his jokes, made me want to eat my own chair and end the misery (that would kill you, right?). Listen, world: Local references are not the same as humor. It is not enough to just say "Fife" and throw me a wink and expect me to laugh because I am familiar with a nearby location called Fife. Furthermore, I could go the rest of my life without hearing "I'll be back" or "Do you feel lucky, punk?" ever again. Humor evolves. Those jokes are extinct. LINDY WEST