Lillian Hellman was a play-writing broad who wrote broadsides, and none was broader than her first—The Children’s Hour, a tale of homophobia unleashed at a small Southern girls’ school when a mischievous student spreads rumors of lesbians on the faculty.

So it’s intriguing that H. Lee Gable begins his staging with so quiet a tableau at the Clark Street Playhouse—girls drifting in half-light from dorm room to classroom to playground on Michael Kachman’s spare, open setting, primping and twirling as teachers stand watch over them, protectively. It’s a moment steeped in the feminine and accompanied by gentle music. A moment to note girlish posturing and ladylike postures and let the audience get used to something unusual about Gable’s casting: Two of his Southern belles are men.

Christopher Henley plays Martha, one of the teachers who will be accused by bad seed Mary Tilford (Abby Wood) of “unnatural” acts. He wears a cowled V-neck sweater, belted low on the waist, over slacks that hang loosely on slender hips. His gestures are delicate—a hand brushing at a strand of hair, then searching for a resting place, settling on a shoulder, perhaps, or a hip thrust ever-so-slightly sideways.

More boisterous is Jay Hardee’s Rosalie, a bundle of giggles and nervous tics in a skirted school uniform. With long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and makeup applied with adolescent enthusiasm, this Rosalie is a rambunctious teenager, bursting with hormonal hysteria, and very easily embarrassed. It is her supportive testimony—extracted through blackmail—that will damn Martha and her friend Karen (a splendidly controlled Cam Magee), and it’s easy to see how she’d prefer perjury to exposure.

Other characters are cast more conventionally. William Aitken is solid and stable as Karen’s fiancé Joe; Annie Houston clutches a Bible persuasively as Mary’s pious grandmother, and while Suzanne Richard stands less than 4 feet tall, she’s every inch the dragonlady as Martha’s vicious, self-aggrandizing aunt. Yes, it takes a scene or two to adjust, but the script—stripped to essentials here in a version Hellman adapted in the 1950s—is still a powerhouse. It gathers force much as it always has: the accusations shocking, the defense furious but doomed, the devastation total. The play may amount to little more than melodrama, but it’s hugely effective, Southern Gothic melodrama, with a killer of a last scene, and Gable makes sure that every lick of its pain singes the crowd out front.

The cross-gender casting may seem a stunt, but it’s one that pays off in intriguing ways. When Joe places his hand reassuringly on Martha’s shoulder at one early point and lets it linger there for a second, alarm bells go off in your head in ways that they wouldn’t if Martha were being played by a woman. The gesture isn’t remotely sexual, but it is gender-specific. The same reassurance offered man-to-man would be stiff-elbowed. Eye contact, firmness, duration—all would be different.

And that’s also true of other gestures—serving to establish Hellman’s central point that perception is everything in prejudice. You watch a polite, conversation-terminating peck on the cheek, an airy wave of the hand that dismisses a strong word, a giggle that greets an unexpected question, a frenzied tossing of hair and clasping of knees that signals girlish fright, and they all “read” differently when the skirted half of the equation is played by a man. And what could be more to the point in a play that hinges so crucially on touches, kisses, and lies?

The stars have aligned to offer D.C. audiences a refresher course in what’s happened to musical theater in the decades since Rodgers & Hammerstein held sway. Three musicals opening in quick succession: a bright, brassy Mame with ’60s kicklines and swelling choruses; a brooding, gloomy Assassins, with ’80s angst and breathtakingly lyrical despair; and now, tossing herrings, bad puns, confetti, and the occasional loose limb at all that’s come before, is Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Taking the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail as their text, Eric Idle and director Mike Nichols have crafted Spamalot as precisely what you might expect—an evening-long compendium of gags. Some are familiar (the knights who say “Ni”), others are new (a riff on Phantom of the Opera), and all are at least theoretically in the service of a retelling of the legend of King Arthur. Verrry loosely, of course. There are peasants who spout Karl Marx, and jests that scream Groucho Marx, mixed in with songs of derring-do and daring-done. Chorus girls bounce into a Las Vegas number sporting jiggling Jell-O breasts, while Arthur’s Lady of the Lake has nearly as many costume changes as Christine Baranski’s Mame.

It’s all brisk, brazen, and blithering, and it’s being put across at the National Theatre by a cast of lower-case stars who are every bit as entertaining as the better-known folks (Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria) who assayed the parts originally on Broadway. Michael Siberry is an amusingly annoyed Arthur, clip-clopping around the stage on horseback (with a coconut-clapping assist from Jeff Dumas’ agreeably dyspeptic Patsy). Bradley Dean is a dashing Sir Galahad, Rick Holmes a femmy Sir Lancelot, and David Turner is the evening’s happiest surprise as a nit-picking, conflict-avoiding Sir Robin. His rapturously silly “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)” is probably the evening’s comic high point, though it has plenty of competition.

Chameleonic Tom Deckman has as many uproarious numbers as anyone in the show (as Not Dead Fred, a relentlessly truth-telling Minstrel, and an awakening-to-his-sexuality Prince Herbert). And slinky, serpentine Lady of the Lake Pia Glenn is pretty terrific, too, though folks who caught Broadway’s Sara Ramirez in the part may grouse that Glenn is merely hilarious, where Ramirez made you want to rush out and build a revival of Funny Girl around her.

Tim Hatley’s era-spanning sets and costumes are firmly in the Python mode, with levitating fireworks implanted in God’s heels, breakaway cotton candy clouds floating above a green and “very expensive forest,” and wooden Trojan Rabbits and stuffed flying cows popping up both onstage and in projections. Nichols wasn’t the go-to guy for musicals before Spamalot (he’d staged The Apple Tree in the ’60s and produced Annie a decade later), but with an assist from choreographer Casey Nicholaw, he conjures up some giddy mockery of the form. When Glenn and Dean begin their heroically oversized duet, “The Song That Goes Like This,” an ever-crescendoing spoof of Lloyd Webber–ian excess, they’re afloat on a lake of dry-ice fog with a chandelier descending menacingly.

There are equally knowing riffs on everything from disco queens to scantily clad cheerleaders, all of it pitched to the rafters and beyond by comics who’ll stop at nothing to get just one more laugh. As one of Eric Idle’s lyrics has it, “we get ham and jam and Spam a lot.” Happily for audiences, the emphasis is on ham.CP