The Flying Dutchman

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Seattle Opera

Through Aug 25.

The plot of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman drips with sexual politics. A Dutch sailor, cursed by the devil for his colonial ambitions (he made the mistake of declaring his intention to sail around the Cape of Good Hope), must remain adrift at sea until he secures the love of a girl who will remain faithful for the rest of her life. The sailor gets his chance at the little and big deaths (sexual release and passing of the mortal coil, respectively) only once every seven years. His next mark is a dreamy captain's daughter. When we first meet Senta, she's already passionately devoted to the Dutchman's story and portrait; she's so far gone that she already seems not quite of this world. Experience engulfs inexperience, of course; they both end up dead and happy, but he's happy because he's finally dead and she's happy because she has joined her beloved.

In this square staging, remounted from a 1989 production, the Dutchman is Greer Grimsley, a Byronic vision in his mane of dark hair and glittering coat. Senta is Jane Eaglen, easily four times the size of the skinny little chorus girls around her and not at all resembling a woman with one foot in the grave, wasting away for ghostly devotion. The sets are shallow and force the enormous cast (men's and women's choruses, plus the principals) to pile up on one another like every act is a curtain call. Shut your eyes, and the music—especially the orchestra, led by conductor Asher Fisch—is rapturous. But opera is a visual medium, too, and every time you sneak a peek, the hilariously morbid story devolves into camp. ANNIE WAGNER

Prayer for My Enemy

Intiman Theatre

Through Aug 26.

Prayer for My Enemy is the latest production by playwright Craig Lucas and director Bartlett Sher, the duo who received accolades for their work on The Light in the Piazza, as well as Singing Forest, The Dying Gaul, and adaptations of Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya.

Two childhood friends reunite after one tailgates the other in traffic. Tad (James McMenamin) has survived a failed marriage, substance abuse, and an accidental tantric retreat and is now an amiable slacker. Billy Noone (Daniel Zaitchik) is about to be shipped off to Iraq—he joined the Army Reserves to get his father (John Procaccino) to stop calling him "Fagboy," "Liberace," and "Helen." Meanwhile, a sad woman named Dolores (Kimberly King) takes care of her mother, who recently suffered a stroke.

Tad becomes enmeshed in the psychologically damaged Noone family as Billy falls to pieces in Iraq. Those vignettes are interspersed with seething monologues from Dolores that, beyond thematic resonance, seem to bear no relation to the main story. Much of the play is spent discussing brains—Billy's father is obsessed with elephant memory, Billy's sister has an autistic son, and Tad experiments with drugs to tolerate Billy's cracked family. Set designer John McDermott evokes the theme with an impressionistic autumn tree (resembling an MRI brain scan) that lowers from the rafters.

Despite the promising beginning, Enemy drags in the second third, particularly in a segment with the Noone family. The theater world would be a better, more populous place if nobody ever produced another play about an adult son with a tough-as-nails father, a frazzled mother, and an inferiority complex. That's a lot of cliché, but at least it is well-acted cliché.

The final third, when Dolores's story collapses into the Noones', is a payoff worth the previous wincing. Lucas's script transcends its crime-drama and family-strife genres and ends with a touching funeral scene that leaves deliciously unanswered questions. Enemy isn't the grand slam that Piazza was, but it's a solid double, a drama that grows more exciting as it rushes toward a memorable and haunting conclusion. PAUL CONSTANT

First Class

ACT Theatre

Through Aug 26.

To begin: First Class is a one-man play written by David Wagoner, performed by John Aylward, and directed by Kurt Beattie. The set is simple (a stage, a desk, a blackboard, a record player), and Aylward's performance is flawless—not just because he's a good actor, but because he abundantly loves the subject of the play, the American poet Theodore Roethke.

First Class has two parts: one in which Roethke addresses his students, one in which he addresses himself. The first part is about his genius; the second is about his madness. In the first part, Roethke enters a classroom and flaunts his impressive command of English poetry: "I assume you have read Yeats and Hopkins and Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings and Farmer Frost and Tiresome Tom Eliot." He continues excitedly: "Have you read Louise Bogan? Stanley Kunitz? Rolfe Humphries? Archie MacLeish? Kenneth Fearing? Ruth Pitter? Hart Crane?" He concludes breathlessly: "Auden? MacNeice? Hardy? John Donne? Ben Jonson? Vaughan? Herbert? Herrick? Campion? Earl of Surrey? Sir Thomas Wyatt? The anonymous Elizabethans? All of Mother Goose 10 times?" Plato imagined Socrates, his former teacher, as the first hero of philosophy; Wagoner imagines Roethke, his former teacher, as the last hero of poetry.

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The madness section is not as good as the genius section. Roethke dismisses his class ("Let's take a breather; go do some homework") and goes to his office to write a poem. He pulls out a bottle of bourbon and begins the act of creation. As he gropes for ideas, titles, and themes, demons from the past attack him: his father, his childhood, his insecurities—the difficult experiences that hurt him into poetry. He wonders to himself: "I keep telling my students how to do it and when to do it, but who's going to tell me?"

The lesson: Poets are at their worst when talking about their own creative process and at their best when talking about the genius of others. CHARLES MUDEDE