Hoi Polloi Productions at Northwest Actors Studio,
324-6328. $10. Through May 11.

Bear with me here: First we have this king, see? And this king... well, he's what you might call overwrought. The queen--with whom the king seems particularly obsessed--is feeling a little under the weather these days (in fact, she's gasping her last in the next room over), and the king (who I suspect is a little excitable in the best of times) just doesn't seem to have the coping skills required to handle the situation. So what does a psycho sovereign with a grade-A case of the blues do to turn that kingly frown upside down? Why, summon his wacky court jester, of course! But the fool seems just as overwrought (and mentally unbalanced) as the king, and his shenanigans only make matters worse. Much worse. And to top it all off, the spirit of death is hovering around, and those damn dogs in the courtyard just won't... stop... BARKING....

Escurial isn't a play everyone's going to enjoy. It's a weighty exercise in death, obsession, and insanity: moody, dark, and thick with irony and unnerving imagery. Even those who get off on such broody material might think that it's too heavy for a late-night show (curtain rises at 11:00 pm). But Escurial has only a single act; a tight, clean and superbly acted theatrical morsel that fits neatly into a night of carousing. It's intense but not overwhelming. And it's staged in probably the warmest, coziest performance space on Capitol Hill--the couch-stuffed, softly lit topmost floor of Northwest Actors Studio (did I mention the bar?)--which goes to make Escurial a very relaxing and intimate night of good theater. If your leanings are toward perky, sunshiny Broadway-musical-type fluff, skip Escurial. But if you go for deeper, darker, more cerebral fare, Escurial is exactly what you're looking for. ADRIAN RYAN

Welcome to Kitty Hawk
Printer's Devil Theatre at the Little Theatre, 329-2629.
$10 Thurs/Sun, $12 Fri-Sat. Through April 28.

Forget the Beats, that most overly revered group of poets. For real avant-garde verse with heart and brains there is nothing like the New York School poets. That's part of why I was so excited about the latest production by the inventive Printer's Devil Theatre, Welcome to Kitty Hawk. It's a collage-based performance piece about the love triangle between New York School poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara and painter Grace Hartigan. It's short, at just under an hour, and packed with dense language, some from biographies, some from poems, and some from original material by the three performers and Kip Fagan. It's played as brisk screwball comedy, which seems at first like a good way to undercut pretension, but instead upends the more nuanced passages.

Stephen Hando plays Frank O'Hara to kitschy effect, which sometimes heightens and sometimes deflates the text. Heidi Schreck plays painter Grace Hartigan with a broad New York accent that recalls the portrayal of another famous female painter: Lee Krasner as played by Marcia Gay Harden in the film Pollock. And Michael Chick plays John Ashbery with a dexterity that zigs and zags with the material. But the text (when I say "text" I'm not trying to be highbrow; the words feel more often like a recitation than a script) seems to be part of the problem with the production. The chatty abstraction of the New York School poets comes across preciously in the show. It's unfortunate because there are some real moments of beauty and comedy, when each performer captures a piece of their character's spark, usually in rapid-fire exchanges, but parts directly addressed to the audience are usually punctuated by some hammy bit of physical comedy. It's as if they don't trust the words to hold their own. In one scene O'Hara hangs Hartigan's paintings and marvels at them. That's what the play feels like: pointing at the art rather than being it. NATE LIPPENS

Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 443-2222.
$15-$44. Through May 15.

As a delicate puppet dragonfly wafted to and fro, I was delighted. The vibration of a paper wing ignited a world of sensations, creating a quiet pond buzzing with insects in my imagination. Writer/director Ping Chong's Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight is peppered with gorgeous visuals, like bats fluttering across a crescent moon and glowing paper lanterns floating down a river. A live actress walks across the stage with a puppet of an old woman on her back; the actress manipulates the puppet with remarkable deftness as an amplified voice speaks for the old woman.

Unfortunately, the storytelling is not as capable. Japanese ghost stories are tricky to begin with; they don't necessarily have the same sense of resolution or revelation that Western ghost stories do, relying instead on eerie poetry. They might feel sliver-thin if they weren't (generally) short and swift. Obon takes three stories--one about a samurai who breaks a taboo, one about a young concubine and a jealous older wife, and one about a callous husband who comes to regret leaving his first wife--and stretches them to fill an hour. An hourlong show sounds like a brief evening of theater, but when you're waiting for a wispy story to move forward, time expands.

More problematic is that some of the visuals are more clever than wise. The third story begins in Japan's feudal era but progresses to the current day--which doesn't do much to illuminate the story but allows the puppeteers to create an overhead view of a modern city, peering down on skyscrapers and traffic moving far below. For a moment, this perspective seems amazingly inventive. When that moment has passed--and it passes quickly--this view feels static and distracting. Where the dragonfly inspired imagination and invoked memories of reality, this overhead cityscape reminds me of movies. The effect is deadening. Despite its prettiness, Obon is frustratingly unsatisfying. BRET FETZER