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Thinking man's play

Harlequin Productions stages â€Å"Under a Mantle of Stars”

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One thing about theater is that directors make the shows their own more often than not by personalizing the show and interpreting the text their way. I only wish theaters dunked their buckets into deeper wells of work rather than drawing from the same pool of plays time after time. I like Neil Simon and Agatha Christie works as much as the average theatergoer, but staging only “The Odd Couple” or “Biloxi Blues” and “The Hollow” or “Death on the Nile” doesn’t do justice to the list of other great works available.

Rarely is there a show that comes along that I have neither seen before nor have a frame of reference to create some notions about the show. Harlequin Productions stumped me. I knew nothing about the Olympia theater’s current production when I booked my tickets. I was told it was something different, and that was enough for me.

“Under a Mantle of Stars” is a show that can best be described by what it is not. It is not a run-of-the-mill play. It is not linear. It is not for theatergoers who don’t want to think. It is not a play that has traditional characters, a traditional plot or a traditional structure.

It is a play that is not like any show South Sound stages have added to their season in a long time.

That said, I’ll tell a bit about the play. Written by Manuel Puig, who is the guy who wrote “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the show is part dream, part delusion, part “Twilight Zone,” part mental breakdown.  It is a dream comedy that doesn’t bother to tell the audience whose dream they are viewing. Everything is up to the audience to figure out. The characters are intentionally overplayed and drawn out in the tradition of Spanish soap operas and the makings of those odd dreams we all have from time to time that make perfect sense when they play out in our heads but never seem to make much sense when our eyes are open.

It’s a play that makes theatergoers ask: “What did I just see?” It’s great, but it really can’t be described. At its core, the show is about a man and his wife and their teen-age foster child in 1948 when they have a sudden visit by two visitors. The travelers have happened across the isolated country mansion after coming close to running out of gas. Little do they know what they have stumbled into, when each of the residents believes the travelers are people from their past rather than the escaped jewel thieves they are.

The thieves opt to play along and feed into their mistaken identities. But that leads to trouble. The play spirals into the surreal quickly after that.

What makes the play so great is not only does it go against all of the elements that make scripts predictable, but that Harlequin strengthened the play’s unusual features by amping them up to their absurd, dreamlike conclusion. This is a show that needs to be entered with an open mind and exited with the knowledge that an open bottle of wine and a long discussion will be required to figure it out. But then again, figuring it out isn’t always the point of theater.

[State Theater, through Feb. 9, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays, 3 p.m. on Jan. 26, $24-$33, 202 Fourth Ave E., Olympia, 360.786.0151,]

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