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Symphony plans free day for September, Count Basie Orchestra plays at Jazz Alley
Seattle actors delight in ACT comedy, ICON drag benefit on Saturday by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

It's another great week for Emerald City arts fans, and Bits&Bytes is here to tell you "all about it." The Phantom of the Opera , Broadway's longest running musical, returns to Seattle next week for a September stay at the Paramount Theatre, Shrek , the Broadway-bound musical comedy staging of the beloved animated film at the 5th Avenue Theatre, finally opens for reviews after more than three weeks of "previews" (and reworkings) before the show heads to New York for a December opening, the Ringling Brothers Circus makes a Northwest stop in Everett for the weekend. Two comedies are delighting (but confusing) stage fans at Intiman and ACT. It's another great week. Read on:

Alan Ayckbourn, the prolific British playwright who is often (and incorrectly) called "The Neil Simon of England," loves to write gimmick-based plays.

His House and Garden are two separate plays taking place simultaneously with the same characters who move between indoors and outdoors. Audiences must see both plays on the same day to make any sense out of the action - and thousands flocked to it. In another early play, Ayckbourn set one play in three separate living rooms, but all of them were on one set - the prop department had to build a sofa in three styles, in three parts. Each playlet played in the same space at the same time but none of the characters acknowledged the other plot activities. Audiences - in England, New York and Seattle - loved it.

With Intimate Exchanges , continuing at ACT Theatre in downtown Seattle through September 14, Ayckbourn creates one play with six characters but just two actors, with multiple plot variations and 16 possible endings. (Yes, that's right, 16 possible endings.) ACT - with a four-week run - limits the variations and uses only four possible endings, and, alas, that takes some of the fun out of the evening. Ayckbourn stages the world premieres of most of his plays at a small theater in a small English town. Local theater fans there delighted in seeing the play multiple times over its lengthy run.

While ACT hopes that subscribers (who get a greatly reduced-price second-visit ticket) or single-ticket buyers will be intrigued enough to return, few actually have. ACT has even published a list of which night which variation will result in which ending - a marriage, a funeral, a spat, a love affair. In England, in New York and in other major theater cities, the show staged all 16 endings. While the gimmick has a certain appeal, the delight of seeing two actors constantly challenging each other is limited for most theater fans. (In the published script, with 16 variations, each night could be completely different depending on if a certain character in the first scene accepts a cup of tea or not, or lights an offered cigarette in the second scene. The actors were always "on their toes" to see what would happen.)

Most of the delight in the ACT production, briskly directed by Kurt Beattie, ACT's on-target artistic director, is enjoying the work of two Seattle pros and long time Emerald City favorites - Marianne Owen and Hamilton Wright. Each play three vivid and distinct characters who (with the help of ACT's talented stage crew and costume shop and backstage dressers) shift into a complete new look, new posture, and new voice within seconds. Both actors are incredible and "a joy to behold."

The script has great moments, and great lines: an alcoholic headmaster who "bottles up the pressures of work and then comes home and unbottles," a promiscuous woman who "the men at the squash club say that there are more bookings for her than for the courts," a catering shop that raised prices which resulted "in an excessively high tea." A male character is a self-acknowledged gourmet cook, best known for his delicious desserts. "I'm a master baker!" he brags (a few too times too many). The women in the scene can't quite understand his heavy North County British accent and misunderstand. The audience - quickly, some nights, slowly at other performances - gets the joke and howls out loud at the clever pun.

One quibble: Celia's mental breakdown (most nights) in the final scene is far too realistic. It is hysterically funny if one finds mental illness by way of an in-your-face emotional meltdown clever and fun. Most of the other "serious" scenes are played so over-the-top that reality never intrudes. (Imagine Neil Simon's The Odd Couple played for realism and the hair-brained Pidgeon Sisters actually crying real tears over their individual divorces.)

Tickets and reservations are available at (206) 292-7676. There's a lot of fun in Intimate Exchanges . As usual, ask about discounts, "rush" pricing, etc. Check it out.

The Seattle Counseling Service, "proudly serving the GLBT community since 1969," presents its fifth annual ICON fundraising benefit tomorrow night, September 6, at Town Hall at 8th and Seneca at 6:30 p.m. Admission, starting at $50, is by reserved seating only. At SGN's deadline, "good seats" were still available but SCS expects a total sell out by curtain time.

ICON , "a celebration of drag, art and life," is a major fundraiser for SCS, but the audience includes a representation of the diverse areas of Seattle's expansive GLBT community plus a number of straights - politicians, friends and family of the drag performers, clients of "the boys." According to my host for tomorrow's A-list event, "everyone always has a good time."

Aleska Manila is hosting the ceremonies. Can't wait....

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