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The gowns are every bit as patterned—stone skirts and brick bodices—and as rigidly stylized as Jean Genet’s chatter in the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of The Maids. If there were any doubt that the servants who play dress-up while their employers are away feel imprisoned by their roles in life, it dies with the first glimpse of them at the Clark Street Playhouse.
After the screech of a metal door that closes behind the last audience member, the lights come up on a Spartan bedroom, where the only breath of air comes through small barred windows. Outside, fluffy clouds are visible, but a sulfurous glow illuminates a doorway that implicitly leads to hell. The combination—a glimpse of sky, but air that’s close and oppressive—leaves the space feeling hermetically sealed.
Something similar might be said of the comic/pathetic scene being played out by the pair of servant sisters who live there. One affects an obsession with clothes and jewels in pretending to be Madame, their imperious, impossible-to-please mistress. The other plays Madame’s alternately sarcastic and fawning maid with the downcast eyes and servile stance of someone who’s lived all her life in a scullery. The arch lines they say to each other (“You have your flowers, I my sink”) they have clearly said before, and as they whip through what turns out to be a melodramatic story of murder and intrigue, sometimes dropping character to berate each other on performance points, both keep stealing glances out the window, worried that the real Madame might come back unexpectedly.
Naturally, she does, though she’s not quite real, either. Ravishing in green, fuchsia, and yellow, she looks like a celery stalk that’s somehow mated with an orchid, and she speaks in crisply articulated French at a ferocious clip—except, that is, when she momentarily drops character to comment in English on the way the plot is progressing.
Genet based the play on court transcripts of a high-profile madness/murder case that captured the imagination of the French public much as the Leopold and Loeb case captured the fancy of pre-supermarket-tabloid America. By comically exaggerating the upstairs/downstairs details and slightly fictionalizing the insanity of the characters, Genet was able to examine issues of class and dominance, and also to comment on the playacting people do in relationships.
Director Jose Carrasquillo has upped the ante, not merely by having the upstairs Madame speak an entirely different language than her downstairs maids, but also by casting men in all three parts. This latter tactic is unusual but hardly unprecedented. Genet wanted men to play the roles, but the play’s first director ignored his wishes, and most subsequent productions have followed suit, at least partly at the insistence of actresses who know good parts when they see them and are loath to give them up.
Carrasquillo makes a persuasive case for the author’s original intentions by having the actors slip into their natural vocal register when muttering asides to one another, neatly distinguishing their acting from their characters’ acting-out while simultaneously being quite funny. Christopher Henley and Jeffrey Johnson play servants Solange and Claire in what might be called unforced drag—wearing gowns but not wigs, and making no particular attempt to appear feminine beyond a certain grace of gesture. Karl Miller, however, plays Madame to the absolute hilt, with campily hilarious, Carmen Miranda-ish flamboyance.
Production elements all contribute to the stylized staging concept, from set designer Giorgos Tsappas’ creative adaptation of the warehouse space behind the Clark Street Playhouse lobby (his use of existing architectural features, including an industrial doorway and oddly spaced interior windows, is both functional and witty) to Michele Reisch’s vividly surrealist costumes. Ayun Fedorcha’s striking, mostly hard-edged lighting is also an asset to a production that pretty effortlessly turns a difficult, seldom-produced script into a crowd-pleaser.
A glass wall separates Sicily’s icy court from Bohemia’s rolling hills in the Shakespeare Theatre’s gorgeously designed, smartly acted, and strangely uninvolving Winter’s Tale. Howell Binkley’s exquisitely nuanced lighting discovers stairways and passages behind the glass, and allows Sicily’s King Leontes (Philip Goodwin), who smiles beatifically in public at his pregnant wife, Hermione (Lise Bruneau), to scowl ferociously while spying on her tete-a-tetes with his friend Polixenes (Brent Harris), the king of Bohemia.
That Leontes has encouraged their togetherness doesn’t for a moment stifle his jealousy. Nor does the fact (eventually attested to by an oracle) that their behavior is entirely innocent. By act’s end, the now-contrite king is alone and childless—his brother and his chief adviser having fled, his son dead, his newborn daughter abandoned on a snowy hilltop, his most loyal lord eaten by a bear, his wife entombed.
Now, you may be remembering about now that The Winter’s Tale is supposed to be a comedy, and the laughs do arrive at the Lansburgh Theatre—pretty explosively, too—a few moments before intermission. That’s when a shepherd (David Sabin) discovers Leontes’ baby on the hilltop and starts cooing in that demented way adults do in the presence of the diapered. Soon the action has moved forward 16 years, and the stage is filled with yodelling yokels and bumptious bumpkins, all of whom, despite a rolling stage floor that threatens to pitch them into the lap of patrons sitting in the first row, prove to be dancing fools.
The comedy is lively in Michael Kahn’s necessarily schizoid staging of Shakespeare’s most schizoid work, but the second act’s vaudeville feels approximately as forced as the first act’s austere melodrama feels unrelieved. Not that the performances and direction don’t pull out all the emotional stops you might wish. Goodwin is both monstrously obsessive and convincingly (if a bit suddenly) remorseful as the king, Bruneau affectingly plainspoken and clearheaded as his wrongly accused queen. Tana Hicken wrings pathos and humor from the tormenting of Leontes for his misjudgment, and Sabin has a field day turning the old shepherd into a Falstaff-like figure. Other characters are mostly well-handled, though Donald Corren appears to be working so hard to get his chuckles as flimflammer Autolycus that I found myself admiring his technique rather than laughing at it. Still, the opening-night crowd seemed to like him well enough.
For all their efforts, though—and those of Kahn, who creates some genuinely spectacular stage pictures on designer Walt Spangler’s soaring, glacierlike planking—the story itself doesn’t ever feel plausible enough to keep you interested in characters who seem awfully prone to forgetting what’s just happened to them. You may find yourself wishing, as I did, that the fate of the adorable, violin-playing kid (Skye Rios), who dies of grief at the king’s cruelty in the first act, could be more forcefully remembered when that same king is rewarded with a happy ending. That’s Shakespeare’s problem, of course, but one a production needs to solve more persuasively than this if The Winter’s Tale isn’t to leave an audience cold.
Given the avalanche of anguish and soul-searching prompted by last year’s terrorist attacks, patrons may be startled by the laughs in Woolly Mammoth’s world premiere of Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events. The play, which chronicles a distracted couple’s attempt on Sept. 12 to go through the motions of a previously scheduled blind date, is an understandably scattered, but intriguing, attempt to make theatrical sense of feelings audience members will doubtless remember from real life.
I say “scattered” because the playwright has chosen to fracture his storytelling to match the fractured emotions he’s recounting. The evening begins with the arrival of an Our Town-ish stage manager (Nehal Joshi) seeking an audience volunteer for a coin toss that will determine certain of the play’s events, with a recorded tone to be sounded to alert the audience as to which events those are. After the toss, the stage manager exits, and there’s a cacophony of emergency vehicles, followed by the reassuring drone of Peter Jennings on TV. A knock at the door signals the presence in the hallway of Andrew (Eric Sutton), a nebbishy bookstore manager who has come for his blind date with Waverly (Holly Twyford) toting a book, just in case.
Although this setup hardly seems auspicious, it turns out he and Waverly are both voracious readers of Trollope and, having met cute, they delight in chatting cute for a while about literature. But the events of the previous day keep distracting them. Waverly has an identical twin living in Manhattan whom she’s not been able to contact, and as she and Andrew reveal more about themselves to each other, a series of coincidences and connections gradually accumulates, reducing the degrees of separation between them until their world seems very small. “This must be,” says Waverly early on, “a really hard day for Kevin Bacon.”
It is coincidence—and the impossibility of determining whether we live in a determinist world—that the playwright means to examine in Recent Tragic Events, and that’s certainly fertile ground for speculation. “I don’t know where the chances end and the choices start anymore” goes one line, and as the play contrasts serendipity with crafted moments (the stage manager keeps reappearing, and Waverly tries to control her environment with rules, games, and demands) the distinctions start to blur.
It’s hard to know how anyone could come up with fresh insight into our reactions to Sept. 11, so exhaustively has the public mood been analyzed, probed, and pontificated on. But Wright has decided that there’s plenty to be said about side issues relating to the “almost pornographic knowledge” that we live in a world beyond our control. He’s probably right, though Recent Tragic Events is less interesting when it’s articulating those side issues than when it’s simply being playful, as when it brings celebrated author Joyce Carol Oates (impersonated persuasively by a sock puppet) into the conversation or turns a pizza party with stoner neighbors (Michael Ray Escamilla and Dori Legg) into a giddy excuse for director Michael John Garces’ splendidly managed sight gags.
The actors are adept—Twyford painfully vulnerable, Sutton compellingly conflicted, Escamilla dippily annoying, and Legg a terrific, deadpan sock-puppeteer. And the physical production’s as apt as the performances, especially Lisa L. Ogonowski’s attention-grabbing lighting design, with its alternating emphasis on naturalness and artificiality.
That said, the play never quite makes a theatrical case for the notion that chance and choice are indistinguishable, at least partly because so much of what happens on stage feels tightly controlled. It will likely occur to you at some point that there isn’t a real moment of anarchy to be found in a play that argues strenuously for the notion of an anarchic, unknowable universe. Of course, there’s a certain beauty to that. If the play’s observations and some of its techniques don’t hold up in execution (the stage-manager conceit, for instance, outlasts both its welcome and its usefulness), it can always be chalked up to chance. CP