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Thursday, November 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fairy Tale Fascism -- Russian Playwright's Nazi Protest Is Dressed Up In Fantasy In Open Circle's `Naked King'

Seattle Times Theater Critic

------------------------------- THEATER PREVIEW

"The Naked King" by Eugene Schwartz Previews tonight, opens tomorrow and runs Thursdays-Sundays through Dec. 19 (no performance Nov. 26), at the Open Circle Theater, 429 Boren Ave., Seattle; $8-$12, 206-382-4250. -------------------------------

The name Eugene Schwartz (or Shvarts, or Shwartz, depending on your translation from the Russian) has rarely, if ever, been up in lights on American theater marquees.

But a small, feisty Seattle fringe troupe, the Open Circle Theater, has adopted the late Russian dramatist as a kind of posthumous playwright-in-residence.

Working on an extremely compact stage, in a back alley theater on the edge of downtown, Open Circle has already presented two of Schwartz's "fairy tales for grown-ups" in eye-catching productions: "The Dragon" in 1996 and "The Shadow" last year.

This week, the group ushers in its 1998-99 season with a new musical version of "The Naked King," another whimsical work from Schwartz. It's an anti-fascist allegory that was banned from premiering in 1934 by Soviet leader Josef Stalin's nervous censors.

The play, which draws on three Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales for inspiration, is being directed by Lisa Anne Glomb. Though Glomb has a track record with other local troupes - i.e., AHA!, Seattle Repertory Theatre, New City Theater and her own Seattle Theatre Project - this is her first Open Circle gig.

It is also her working introduction to Schwartz, an imaginative and wily Jewish author who penned what might be termed "adult plays for children," using the deceptively innocent fairy tale format to explore the militarism, tyranny, racism and brutality that racked Europe from the 1930s to 1950s. (Schwartz died in 1958 at age 60, two years before "Naked King" finally had its debut on a Russian stage.)

Like the other Schwartz plays Open Circle has produced, "this is very much a fantastical representation," says Glomb. "But it's somewhat darker, because Schwartz was very specifically protesting the Nazis in this work."

The plot charts the absurdist journey of a swineherd, who falls in love with a princess and is sent into exile by her disapproving father. In the next kingdom, he exposes another monarch who has misled his people - a la Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes."

"At the end of the story, revolution wins the day and love triumphs," Glomb notes. "Schwartz says evil and misery are with us, but also that the only thing that can overcome them is love and caring for each other, and not giving in to evil."

Glomb's production features a "Hungarian rhapsody meets Squirrel Nut Zippers" score by Eric Salamon and Scott House. And it squeezes 14 actors and two musicians onto a stage roughly the size of a walk-in closet.

"It's a challenge," Glomb admits. "We're imagining the play is being performed in a Berlin opera house in 1934, by a group of buffoons - dark clowns - who wander in.

"So we've created a little dilapidated jewel of an opera house. It's like a secret puzzle box of a set, and has this wonderful, tarnished quality. And it's absolutely amazing, considering the size of our budget."

Glomb has worked with some of the cast on previous low-budget shows - including Open Circle artistic director Scott Bradley, whom she directed in the spoofy "The Woman in Question" at AHA! Theatre.

She says Seattle Theatre Project, the Open Circle and the improv group Baldface Lie are seeking a larger venue they could share.

All three groups have had some critical and box-office success recently, with Glomb's Theatre Project prospering from its co-production of the long-running comedy hit "Late Nite Catechism."

"We just want to present ourselves in the best light possible," she emphasizes, "and let people know we're a viable business opportunity - not just a bunch of kids who want to put on a show at a warehouse."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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