Richard II
Seattle Shakespeare Company at the Center House Theatre,
325-6500. $10-$24. Through March 17.

Shakespeare's Richard II is not particularly likeable, and actor Peter Crook has the guts to keep him that way. A foppish king who made some poor decisions and was eventually overthrown, Richard alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-pity. When his throne is threatened, he bewails his fate with eloquent petulance, if there can be such a thing; when he actually surrenders his crown, his mixture of simpering and scorn destroys any dignity the event might have, to his successor's dismay. Crook makes excellent use of some of the most beautiful and perverse speeches in all of Shakespeare to create a character that is sad, deluded, and caustic.

Unfortunately, beautiful speeches and some compelling scenes do not a great play make. For hundreds of years, directors cut Shakespeare down to make the damn plays more genuinely playable; for some peculiar reason, the contemporary vogue is to stage them wholesale, as if it would cheat audiences to deprive them of a single precious word.

The first act of this three-hour production is a particular slog, as the political details of the late 1300s are laid out. Frankly, all we really need to know is that Richard--in an attempt to settle a feud without shedding blood--banished Henry Bolingbroke for six years, then seized Henry's lands and property for the state when the exile's father died. As Henry, David Quicksall blusters early on; but when Henry returns and assembles an army against Richard, Quicksall underplays to strong effect. The second two acts (which depict the bloody success of Henry's rebellion, sometimes in bizarrely comic scenes) move with more energy, though toward the end things dwindle again. Some judicious (and substantial) editing would have given the production considerably more vigor.

And much as I appreciate the lean, spare staging--nothing but black walls and a few wooden benches--some color in the costumes would have made the production more visually engaging (Richard wears white and everyone else wears black, aside from a couple of red hankies here and there). Three hours is a long time to stare at black on black. BRET FETZER

The Most Happy Fella

The 5th Ave Theatre, 292-2787.
$17-$58. Through March 24.

The recent popularity of innocent, sweet musicals set in pre-WWII America might indicate that audiences feel overwhelmed or overburdened lately and don't want to think very much. The Most Happy Fella certainly won't challenge you to do that--it's all about feeling good about a kind of life that doesn't even exist. But this production has a strong suit in its bright visuals and two terrific, high-energy dance numbers.

Cast largely with familiar Seattle performers like Lisa Estridge-Gray, Greg Michael Allen, and UW Voice Department Chair Julian Patrick, the production (written by Guys and Dolls author Frank Loesser) is almost entirely sung. It's also a study in nostalgia's artifice. The small town of Napa, CA, circa 1956, is depicted here as a sugar fantasyland in pastel colors, where unbelievably good-willed townfolks gather downtown each morning to collect their mail, tip hats to each other, sing, dance, and do back handsprings. However, when darkness comes between the two romantic leads, it's really quite surprising and dramatic; director David Bennett helps sustain the human drama and pain here, even as it's juxtaposed with the play's extremely old-fashioned comic bits and gentle spoofing of Italian American culture. Even if you feel you're drowning in the play's nostalgia and optimism, the core love story between "old, ugly, and not-so-smart" vineyard owner Tony (Patrick) and the ingénue Rosabella (Patti Cohenour) gives this musical a nice vulnerability. STACEY LEVINE

A Touch of the Poet

GreenStage at Sand Point Magnuson Park, 748-1551.
Donation suggested. Through March 23.

If you're interested in Eugene O'Neill--and if you're interested in the history of American theater, you certainly should be--it's probably worth going to see this production of the not-very-often-performed A Touch of the Poet. At one point in his career, O'Neill had hoped (like August Wilson is doing with his great series of plays about African Americans) to write a group of plays about Irish Americans; Poet, set in a poor Irish immigrant tavern in Boston in l828, is as far as he got. When you actually sit through this bloated, overblown three-hour-long melodrama, you will be glad O'Neill did not write more. On the other hand, this play is intriguing because of how much it has in common with O'Neill's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. Both Poet and Journey feature a drunk Irish father who spouts poetry and wants everyone to believe he once was great; a sad, beautiful wife who gave up her Catholic faith to be with her handsome husband, and the offspring (sons in Journey; a daughter in Poet) destroyed by their parents' misery.

Greenstage should be applauded for its recent effort to augment its Shakespeare Summer in the Park shows with a series of American classics, but I wish the company had chosen a less onerous play to work with. This production has a lovely set and some live and lively Irish music, but almost all of the acting is flat and forced. The exception is Erin Day, who accurately conveys the quiet desperation of Nora, a poor woman who married "up" only to find that her pseudo-war-hero husband can't let a day go by without reminding her that she is "beneath" him. This is a long, depressing evening best suited to theater history students and sad sacks. REBECCA BROWN