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Originally published August 19, 2012 at 5:32 AM | Page modified August 20, 2012 at 11:43 AM

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Intiman's 2012 revival season: the pluses and the minuses

What do the revived Intiman Theatre's summer shows tell us about where the company's headed? About its aesthetic direction, the kind of theater it wants to be? The artistic profile is still unformed, writes theater critic Misha Berson.

Seattle Times theater critic

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Intiman Theatre's 2012 summer festival includes a show titled "Miracle!"

And it's a kind of miracle when, after nearly expiring last year due to heavy debt and drained coffers, this respected 40-year-old Seattle theater institution is pulling off a four-play, two-month summer season (or any season at all) with zest and dash.

But what is the broader creative vision?

The Intiman fest runs through Aug. 26, and all the box-office numbers aren't in yet. But the public response has been generally good, and upbeat staffers have high hopes for a 2013 follow-up.

Intiman still owes its creditors large sums (including its landlord, the city-owned Seattle Center). And it has relinquished year-round control of its classy home, the Intiman Playhouse.

Yet new artistic director Andrew Russell, a revised board and many supporters have defied the odds to save the Intiman brand from extinction. They've done so with impressive vigor and enthusiasm. They've amassed a relatively modest $1 million budget for the mini-season and brought it off with a fairly lean staff and a dedicated ensemble of noted local actors and other artists. And they've renegotiated Intiman's fiscal debt, with an aim of paying it down responsibly.

The festival roster of familiar classics ("Hedda Gabler" and "Romeo and Juliet") and edgy contemporary comedies (Dan Savage's new "Miracle!," John Patrick Shanley's "Dirty Story") is drawing patrons, says new manager Keri Kellerman.

Kellerman estimates that at least half the 5,400 Intiman subscribers from 2011 are attending (albeit with free passes to make up for the three productions canceled last season), along with enough single ticket buyers to fill roughly 60 to 70 percent of available seats.

If this all adds up, Intiman may well continue on in its new format. But the raison d'être of serious nonprofit theaters is not simply to endure. It's also to contribute artistically and uniquely to the cultural panorama of a community.

Despite past laurels under previous regimes (a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize), Intiman is really starting from scratch, re-creating itself.

So what do this summer's shows tell us about where the company's headed, creatively? About its aesthetic direction, the kind of theater it wants to be?

So far, to this critic, that artistic profile is still rather blurry and unformed, with evident pluses and minuses:

PLUS: Having a repertory acting ensemble, in a summer festival format.

Rarely (outside of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) do West Coast audiences get to see thespians work together in professional rolling repertory, tackling different roles in different scripts from night to night.

Intiman's giving us the chance to see Seattle's Marya Sea Kaminski exercise her versatility in parts as diverse as the hyper-neurotic Norwegian wife Hedda Gabler, Juliet's chatty old wet nurse and a shyly infatuated lesbian stagehand ("Miracle!").

Likewise, it offers an opportunity to catch Timothy McCuen Piggee's commanding presence as a patriarch in "Romeo and Juliet," alternating with 180-degree turns as a randy drag queen in Savage's romp, and a predatory judge in "Hedda Gabler."

This switch-hitting is like an Olympic sport, acting as a transformational relay race. And it's just plain fun to wonder, "Who will he (or she) be next?"

And making the Intiman festival a condensed, summer-months affair works, too. In the fall and winter, the local theater schedule is more crowded, the competition for audience more intense. And summer is prime festival season, so why not a high-profile indoor fest?

MINUS: Uneven performances.

There's also a downside to having actors do double and triple duty, in a four-show lineup. It can reveal players' weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Some in Intiman's troupe don't rise to the demands of multiple roles, are miscast or misdirected. A lovely, childlike Juliet, Fawn Ledesma seems a stilted, one-note Thea in "Hedda Gabler."

Michael Place, a dynamic Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet," morphs into an oddly bland romantic anti-hero in "Hedda."

And there's inconsistency, too, in the company's novice "intern" actors, some of whom betray their inexperience in minor parts.

PLUS: An exquisite "Romeo and Juliet."

The festival paid homage to Intiman's roots as a classical theater with an archetypal romantic tragedy that can be fresh or staid, convincing or pro forma in production.

Allison Narver's staging is not merely vivid and crackling with life, it also takes meaningful interpretive risks.

With a believably enraptured and naive pair of lovers, and colorful, implicated elders on hand, Shakespeare's love story feels contemporary, free of mustiness, refreshed for those who've seen it before and a discovery for those new to it.

MINUS: Missteps, and odd choices.

As sure-footed as "Romeo and Juliet" is, Russell's retooling of "Hedda" makes missteps — in the overwrought choreography by Olivier Wevers used to express inner turmoil, and in an inability to place a dangerously tormented misfit in a wider social context.

However, theaters don't just articulate their intentions and artistic stance in the way they produce plays, but in the plays they choose to produce. And some Intiman festival choices were curious.

A last-minute replacement for another work, "Dirty Story" was a wild-card entry. Shanley's sinister, erotically loaded satire was praised for its topicality in its 2003 debut. So why revive this clever, but now dated and tonally strident, allegory about Mideast political intransigence in 2012? Why in this fest?

Director Valerie Curtis-Newton brought off the tricky staging of Shanley's bipolar black comedy, in which an unappetizingly kinky coupling becomes a glaring metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian political gridlock — and an allegory of American interventionism.

But while this critique of President Bush's post-9/11 policies and Mideast intransigence may hit a nerve here and there, the case is not made for its current relevance or its inclusion here.

If "Dirty Story" wants to shock and rattle its audience, Savage's raunchy "Miracle!" tries even harder to offend and outrage. Yet in a time when drag theater is in the mainstream, and pop-cultural irreverence has left no sacred cow unslain, those gay/straight audiences flocking to a trash-talking diva treatment of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" (little Helen Keller is now a deaf-mute drag performer) are probably there to laugh, cheer and groan at the spectacle — not to tut-tut disapprovingly.

The crude sex jokes, sloppy lip-sync routines and twisted, sometimes quite clever vamps in "Miracle!" are a splashier version of the cabaret-bar lampoons of heavy drama that Savage's Greek Active troupe turned out in the early 1990s.

Fair enough. But this follow-up is not particularly inventive, or revelatory. And as the sole new work of this festival, how does it fit into Intiman's theatrical vision for the future?

That's what we don't know yet, and the Intiman insiders may still be figuring it out.

Will future fests, should they occur, also be grab-bags of stage styles? Will novelty be paramount? Is the point to woo in new patrons with titillating spoofery, while keeping longtime subscribers in the fold with revivals of dramatic masterworks? Or to also mount fresh, exciting scripts new to Seattle?

Audacity is no guarantee of excellence. And ultimately, Intiman can't be all things to all theatergoers, once the newness of its remarkable reincarnation fades. It needs to distinguish itself from other pro Seattle troupes to justify ongoing patronage and support, and show artistic depth as well as gumption.

The first hurdle was harnessing the money and passion to get the company back in the game. No mean task, and mission accomplished. The next step is harder: constructing a more coherent, truly ambitious artistic identity for the longer run.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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