The King Stag, Barbican Theatre, London, <br></br> Humble Boy, Nt Cottesloe, London

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The Independent Culture

Carlo Gozzi is certainly the forgotten man of Italian theatre. The sworn enemy of Goldoni, he was determined to create an anti-realistic, theatre-for-theatre's-sake drama. As a result, he has posthumously provided fantastical librettos for operas such as Turandot and The Love for Three Oranges, but in the age of the naturalists, he is yesterday's man.

But Andrei Serban, director of the American Repertory Theatre, is on a mission to give him new life. And with design by Julie Taymor, the justly applauded genius behind The Lion King, the smart money licks its lips in prospect. Sadly, the result is a wooden, stagey piece of nonsense that never finds the vivacity that all good nonsense needs.

The King Stag is set in the kingdom of Serendippo; there's a magician called Durandarte on the prowl, though he's temporarily taken the form of a parrot. Before taking to wing, he left the king with two spells: a giant statue face that laughs when it hears a lie, and the ability to send his spirit into the body of any dead animal.

The king uses the first to select a wife who truly loves him. After rejecting thousands, he now finds his true love, the daughter of his (good) minister, who does not raise so much as a snigger from the statue. To celebrate, he sets off into the forest of Miracolo, where he is fool enough to tell his (evil) minister all about the body-swapping spell. In seconds, the king finds himself usurped, trapped inside first a stag and then an old peasant. Only an ex machina reappearance by Durandarte saves his bacon and sees off the evil minister.

It should be fun, but Taymor opts to design it as a cross between Commedia dell'Arte, The King and I and the Berliner Ensemble. The costumes are kimono-like, the masked faces are oriental, there are Balinese shadow puppets, and each scene is preceded by a Brechtian slogan.

In fact, the whole piece seems determinedly alienating: the stage is bare, and the lines are all delivered hectoringly out front. Each speech is accompanied by a semaphore of hand and arm actions: floppy fingers for love, straight-up arms for anger and a whole lot more I couldn't decipher. As a result, what should be a silly, rumbustious, magic-filled story loses all its joy. The too-rare moments of humour come exclusively from anachronisms: "Are you that mad cow I keep hearing about?"

Maybe it is simply the wrong way to stage such anti-theatricality. Maybe the masks are too limiting. Or maybe it's just a really young kids' show and, while it is marketed as family theatre, it simply shouldn't be on in grown-up hours.

Jonathan Myerson

To 2 Sep (020-7638 8891)

Humble Boy, Nt Cottesloe, London

IT'S A strange grace, but what the diners are about to receive is even stranger. Mercy Lott, a fretful, churchgoing spinster, stands and, choking back rage and misery, thanks a god she knows the others don't believe in, and about whom she seems to be having doubts herself. In a few minutes, Mercy will suddenly realise she has "spiced up'' the soup everyone is eating with the ashes of her hostess's dead husband.

Mercy's mishap, her bizarre, rambling speech, her horror at what she has done, and the diners' bewilderment as she hysterically snatches their plates away drew roars of laughter from the first-night audience. But I could not believe that Mercy, an accomplished cook, would put her nose into a pot of ashes and decide that a handful would improve her gazpacho. Nor that Felix Humble, the dead man's son, who has been clinging to the pot for several months as if it were a favourite teddy, would leave it unattended and so conveniently close to the dining-table. Above all, I wondered why we were supposed to be startled and amused by such an old joke.

Indeed, while I did laugh at other points, and thought Charlotte Jones's play had patches that were heartfelt and clever, I remained atheistical about the entire enterprise. Felix's mother, Flora (Diana Rigg), rages about having been stuck in the country for 40 years, though she's a sharp-tongued woman whom one can't imagine submitting to the mild Mr Humble. Now, when she's free to live where she likes, she's about to marry a neighbour – the randy but vulnerable George (wait for it) Pye. I couldn't credit Simon Russell Beale's Felix, a theoretical astrophysicist for no better reason than to show us he has his head in the clouds. He is petulant and sulky in what is supposed to be a sympathetic role. When he meets his father's ghost, he is not at all alarmed – they merely have a pleasant conversation. His former girlfriend beggars belief, too. We are meant to take her at her own evaluation – earthy, practical, Felix's one chance for a normal, happy life. But, sour, hectoring and manipulative, she is every bachelor's nightmare of monogamy.

Jones herself doesn't seem to believe in her characters, playing fast and loose with their personalities. The unreflective, emollient Mercy suddenly says she is "taking a herbal remedy for people who soldier on in the face of complete hopelessness". George, who is vulgar but not stupid, thinks Felix is studying "astrology'', and Flora further enrages her son by saying George is "not a million miles away''.

With its choice cast, who are all marvellous, particularly Cathryn Bradshaw as the chippy girlfriend, Marcia Warren as Mercy, and Denis Quilley as George, John Caird's production is loving and lavish. Tim Hatley's garden, a paradise of tall grasses and poppies and daisies, is the epitome of lushness. However, though the National's new encouragement of young playwrights is welcome, this sort of choice and treatment is worrying. On the evidence of this tosh and the appalling The Walls, the National needs to think less about its production values and more about its literary ones.

Rhoda Koenig

To 24 Nov (020-7452 3000)

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