The curtain call of Seattle Repertory Theater’s current production of “The King Stag” is like a cross between a political rally and a BoSox victory. Thousands of bubbles cascade off the stage into the audience as a recording of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” blasts out of the speakers. The audience bobs along with the beat while the sprightly cast bounds out of the wings to take its collective bow. If the rest of the production were this festive and upbeat, the audience would really have something to cheer about.
But the 18th-century commedia-style play by Carlo Gozzi, newly translated by Shelley Berc and Andrei Belgrader, is oddly flat and enervated. Only Kelly Hanson’s set design — a Gaudiesque Moorish castle, animated periodically with starlight, pop-up flowers and puppet animals — reaches the heights of playfulness and wonder to which the whole play aspires.
“The King Stag” tells the story of a monarch and his new queen, undone by the machinations of a treasonous minister. Identities are mistaken, true lovers are torn asunder, spells are cast on people and animals (including the stag of the title), and the kingdom is threatened — only to have everything put right at the end by the timely work of a court magician.
It’s all a framework on which to build scripted and improvised comic bits plus a few incidental moral lessons of the see-with-your-heart-and-not-your-eyes variety.
But many of the gags — fits of temper, stuttering, vomiting — are simply not funny or go on much too long. Jokes that should go pop-pop-pop in quick order instead go thud, thud and, after a great long while, thud again. It’s as if someone (and Belgrader as director is implicated here) told the cast they had all the time in the world, when really, comedy lives and dies by the sweep of the second hand.
It also appears that no one helped the actors decide on a mutual approach to the material. R. Hamilton Wright, as evil minister Tartaglia, is in full yell throughout, the veins sticking out of his neck as he attacks every moment with outrageous slapstick energy.
His foil, King Deramo, is played by a deadpan Todd Waring, his voice so low key it’s sometimes difficult to hear. Caroline Hall portrays the queen with a quiet sincerity unmet by anyone else onstage, and Kelly Mak plays Tartaglia’s abused daughter as a figure so tragic you half expect her to make an entrance in King Lear’s arms.
It’s not that “The King Stag,” as an artistic endeavor, seems ill-advised. The august Belgrader and Berc have had reasonable success with similar projects before, such as their adaptation of Moliere’s “Scapin,” seen at Seattle’s nearby Intiman Theater in 2002. But with the timing and the ensemble work this out of whack, it’s hard to tell whether “The King Stag” has any legs at all.