The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse
Through June 18.
The worst thing about The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is its title—it sounds like a pat, cliché-ridden exploration of Asian-American identity with predictable potshots at evangelical Christianity. Come to think of it, that's exactly what this play is, but without the pat, cliché, or predictable parts. That makes all the difference.
The best thing about Jenny Chow is its menagerie of eccentric characters. Jennifer (the capable Kimber Lee) is a young über-genius who lives with her parents and roams the world via internet. She was born in China, adopted by Anglo-Americans, and wants to find her birth mother, but her acute agoraphobia and OCD keep her from leaving the house. So she builds the world's most sophisticated flying robot to go to China for her. Jennifer is charming—she swears like a sailor and is arrogant, brilliant, and matter-of-fact. (For example: She cheerfully and unsentimentally e-mails nude photos of herself to a Mormon missionary in Shanghai in exchange for his genealogical investigations, while trying to convert him to secular humanism.) Her best friend is a stoner pizza guy and she's surrounded by a zoo of weirdoes, played by the mercurial Patrick Scott: the horny Mormon, cigar-chewing army brass, and the delightfully melodramatic (and profane) Dr. Yakunin, a Russian scientist who howls about his tapeworm and excoriates his new employers at Yale: "They say: 'Here's your computer lab.' I say: Let's throw in some straw and get some fucking goats in here! It's a fucking disgrace!"
The so-so thing about Jenny Chow is its litany of tired themes. There's family and alienation, technology and brilliance. Jennifer can negotiate with the military to engineer missile components, but she can't have a civil conversation with her mother or leave the house. And from Jenny's flying robot to her amateur astronomer father to her business-driven mother (who always seems to be on a plane), all the characters are staring into the sky, incapable of negotiating with each other on earth. Thankfully, the smart dialogue, beautifully freakish characters, adroit cast, and movingly ambiguous conclusion propel the play heavenward. BRENDAN KILEY
Animus Theatre Project
Through June 3.
An all-female Hamlet? Sure, why not? But, then again, why? Director Ryan Brown believes Hamlet was written as a teenage boy, not the 30-year-old man of most adaptations. Brown also believes that only an adult female—not a teenager, not a man—can accurately play the adolescent hormonal freakouts. That is a lot of intuitive jumps to stage an experiment on. And the results? Inconclusive on account of a really bad production.
The first 15 minutes of this Hamlet are passable, but from the minute Lisa Hopp appears as the ghost of Hamlet's father, hissing like a vampire from a lost Ed Wood movie, things begin to smell a little rotten. Hopp does double duty as Claudius, giving that role all the smoldering subtlety of Ming the Merciless. And Erica Chiles-Curnutte's Hamlet is a petulant asshole—rather than interpreting him, she plays Hamlet like a one-dimensional bratty teenager from a sitcom. Every time he storms onstage, there's another tantrum to be overacted. There's never a sense of dimension that allows the audience inside—this Hamlet exists only to throw petty fits.
The set design is intriguing—most backgrounds are constructed with some stagehands and imaginative use of gauzy material. It's a modern-dance trick that could've looked cheesy, but the insinuation of a church from a few extras acting out a pietà, a crucifixion, and a manger scene works without being half as overwrought as the scene taking place before it. Erin Douglass deserves to have her delicate Ophelia airlifted into another, more capable cast, and Bonnie Francis's Polonius earns some laughs. That's honestly about all the good I can wrangle from this. The rest is embarrassing-to-watch fights, the rape of Ophelia by Hamlet during the "get thee to a nunnery" scene—giving an unnecessary new meaning to that monologue—and several heel-kicking deaths. The characters relentlessly scream where a weary sigh would do and, yes, it all seems unbearably adolescent. You shouldn't hear the line "Now cracks a noble heart" and want to laugh. Hamlet as James Dean or, for that matter, Hamlet as a goddamned infant, has to make us understand what he feels, even if we want to kill him for feeling it. I haven't had this bad a time in a theater since I stopped dating actresses. PAUL CONSTANT