There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Actors love plays about actors. The scripts elevate their profession to a calling, reveal its psychic pitfalls, and, well, make them feel special. The trick is getting an audience of nonactors to care. The art-imitates-life theme of Montserrat Roig’s The Vindication of Senyora Clito Mestres seems hardly worth an hour of theater, at least as Roig writes it: An actress whose personal tragedy stems from her husband’s infidelity and role in their child’s death rehearses her role as the tragic heroine Clytemnestra, whose husband Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia and came home with a new bride. The similarities lead to vindication as she discovers her full worth as an artist. Roig’s script isn’t as profound as the Classika Theatre, easily the most earnest stage outfit in Washington, wants it to be. But it doesn’t matter, because Classika is gifted with Dragana Varagic, who gives an utterly committed and organic performance. Varagic, a mainstay of Belgrade’s National Theatre who left her company—and ultimately her country—to protest Milosevic, has been living in Canada for nine years and was critically acclaimed there in this one-woman show, so Classika benefits from her familiarity with the role. But it takes more than knowledge of a part to achieve the ease and grace that Varagic brings to the role of Clito. She takes her sweet time before uttering a single line: Entering the cozy dressing-room set in a raincoat, she settles into a chair, unpacks a valise, and busies herself with a script for so long that it seems as if the audience might be going to witness a pantomime performance. When she first speaks, it’s to mutter to herself about learning her lines. And after she finally, quietly addresses the audience, delicately shattering the fourth wall, she never loses its attention. Varagic can be a physically emotive performer, whether she’s pounding her heart in affirmation or carelessly removing her galoshes; she spends much of the play sitting in her chair, but she inhabits her character so fully that she doesn’t need to strew the stage with opera-size gestures. As befits an actor playing an actor, she has a broad, expressive face, and her smile—half proud, half goofy—is endearing. And that voice—low-pitched, soft, and studded with traces of an accent that could be from her native Yugoslavia or her character’s Catalonia—is a continual pleasure to hear. She’s wholly believable as the sort of middle-aged eccentric who collars people to natter on about her artistic past, veering between bravado and vulnerability. The one-person show functions as a sort of anteroom, where the audience sees a person caught between a complicated past and an uncertain future. Varagic fills that room so completely and compellingly that you won’t care if it’s just a stage she’s passing through. —Pamela Murray Winters