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Actress Anne Allgood excels at emotional extremes

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It's been a bipolar year for actress Anne Allgood. Last November she played the hilariously manic Haley in the comedy "Bad Dates" at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Now she's playing the dangerously depressed Ursula in "Vincent in Brixton" at ACT Theatre.

Again, the issue is a bad date. A really bad date this time: Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent at 20 was "raw and ruthless," according to Ursula Loyer. She was Vincent's London boardinghouse landlady, a widow twice his age. They fall in love. He does the standard "raw and ruthless" self-obsessed artist thing. He leaves her. She was depressed when she met him. When he abandons her, she becomes nearly catatonic.

Allgood was terrific in the manic phase of her bipolar year. She is equally terrific as the depressed Ursula.

Her Ursula starts severe and stoical. Shawn Telford, as Vincent, is not only raw and ruthless but also endearing and beguiling. Moved by his eccentric neediness, Ursula shifts from severe and stoical to giddy -- giddy in a mature way -- and affectionate.

Then, when Vincent runs off to Paris, pre-Prozac blackness envelops Ursula. The situation is underscored by a mournful costume by Melanie Taylor Burgess and gloomy lighting by Rick Paulsen.

Things perk up a tiny bit when Vincent returns. Ursula says she absolutely longs to inspire greatness. In response, Vincent gazes at his rain-soaked boots, drying on Ursula's kitchen table. He grabs a piece of paper and starts to sketch what will become, you guessed it, the famous painting "A Pair of Shoes" (1886).

All this is imagined biography, you understand. But British playwright Nicholas Wright knows a lot about Van Gogh (1853-90). Before he became a painter, Van Gogh really did work at London and Paris branches of a Hague uncle's art gallery. And he really did live for a year at a Mrs. Loyer's boarding house on Hackford Road in the Brixton section of London.

Set designer Scott Weldin includes details that eventually could provide inspiration for Van Gogh paintings: reed-bottomed chairs ("The Chair," 1883) surround a heavy wooden kitchen table ("The Potato Eaters," 1882). Wright offers a verbal allusion to "Starry Night" (1889) when Ursula speaks rapturously of looking up at a blazing night sky.

Renata Friedman plays Vincent's ghastly sister Anna. The role is little more than a crank to shift the plot's direction. Devlin Borra, as Sam, an amiable working class craftsman/artist, provides a welcome contrast to Telford's displays of boorish egotism. Director Kurt Beattie stages "Vincent in Brixton" in his usual expeditious, high-definition style. Wright's drama probably offers more shadings and subtleties than you'll find at ACT. But Beattie's production has some of the simple expressionist vividness that we associate with -- what a coincidence! -- the art of Vincent Van Gogh.

"Vincent in Brixton" runs at ACT, 700 Union St., through Oct. 2. Tickets are $10-$54, discounts for under 25, seniors, students and tickets purchased day of show; 206-292-7600 or

GEORGE M "George M" is essentially a one-man show with a cast of 45 characters (played by 23 actors in the current Civic Light Opera Production).

The title character is George M. Cohan (1878-1942), a legend in his own time -- but not ours. He was a singer/dancer/actor/playwright/songwriter/director/producer/theater owner who liked to think of himself as "the man who owns Broadway."

Multiple talents aside, Cohan was an obnoxious egomaniac. The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre premiered a show about Cohan -- "Yankee Doodle Dandy" -- last year. The production foundered on the inescapable fact that Cohan was neither a tragic hero nor a genius, he was neither noble nor fascinating. He was a deceitful, manipulative, self-centered workaholic with, to borrow a phrase from his contemporary Noel Coward, "a talent to amuse."

The 1968 Broadway premiere production of "George M" managed to run for a year because of the turbo charisma of its star, Joel Grey. There is no reason for Josh Wingerter, who plays Cohan for CLO, to be ashamed of his work. But his proficiency lacks the power to ignite this inert biodrama devised by Michael Stewart and John and Fran Pascal.

The songs -- all by Cohan -- have a certain nostalgia appeal. The 24-tune score includes "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There" and "It's a Grand Old Flag." Taken by themselves, the song performances amount to one of those "and then he wrote ..." musical tribute revues.

Choreographer Jessica Low supplies businesslike tap-dancing numbers. A competent trio accompanies the songs and dances. But even an all-star trio would fail to come up with the full-orchestra razzle-dazzle musical bombast that was Cohan's signature.

"George M" runs through Sept. 25 at the Magnuson Recreation Center, 7400 Sand Point Way. Tickets: $35, students and seniors $25, discounts for groups of 10 or more; 206-363-2809.

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