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With the KenCen’s Sondheim rep concluding this weekend—(note to those who’ve foolishly let things slide: There are still unclaimed weekend seats for Passion and Merrily We Roll Along)—folks who crave theatrical substance might reasonably expect to be out of luck until the new season starts next month.
But a pair of strikingly intelligent evenings in out-of-the-way places have sprung from nowhere to take up the slack. One is comic with a dark, absurdist edge; the other epic with a bright, surrealist sheen. And both are vivid reminders that the area is now so awash in youthful directing and acting talent that some of D.C.’s comparatively staid, established troupes should be as worried about upstarts siphoning away customers as are the nation’s staid, established airlines. I mean, do the math: bargain prices, perfectly adequate service, and they get you to the same place as the big guys.
Take Ionesco. Stoppard. Pinter., the evening director Kathleen Akerley has fashioned by linking three absurdist classics—The Bald Soprano, After Magritte, and The Dumb Waiter—into an original, surprisingly coherent, and uproarious riff on the various ways in which folks fail to communicate. Three short hops, they function as a through trip. People are, suggests Eugene Ionesco, divided by a common language. Yes, says Tom Stoppard, but we might be OK if we could all agree on a point of view. Nonsense, mutters Harold Pinter between acid pauses; we’re doomed by myopia and incomprehension.
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The Bald Soprano begins with the Smiths (Suzanne Richard and Michael John Casey) nattering on idly about meals, acquaintances, and little oddities they’ve noted in the newspaper (“They always give the age of deceased persons, but not of the newly born”). Their conversation is filled with commonplaces that sound decidedly uncommon when articulated with a studied nonchalance that keeps erupting unpredictably into passion. Then Ionesco, who pretty much invented absurdism, adds a second couple, the Martins (Lindsay Allen and Hugh T. Owen), who can’t recall ever having seen each other before but whose increasingly astonished replies to innocent queries push them inevitably to the conclusion that they walk the same streets, ride the same train, live at the same address, and sleep in the same bed. Also on hand are a sultry, suggestive maid (Jennifer Phillips) and a tic-ridden fireman (Jason Stiles) who are marvelously adept storytellers until words themselves fail. By the time the lights dim on this curtain raiser, language has degenerated into mismatched syllables, and meaning seems hopelessly lost.
All this creates, perhaps, the perfect moment for an opus by Tom Stoppard to turn up, jauntily injecting sense into a nonsensical universe with such lines as “You are addressing a police officer, not an envelope” and “There’s no need to use language—that’s what I always say.”
Stoppard’s After Magritte involves a young couple (Stiles and Phillips again) who have witnessed—depending on which of them you’re inclined to believe—a white-bearded, pajama-clad, hopscotch-playing blind man with a tortoise under his arm or a youngish, one-legged soccer player, his face covered with shaving foam, brandishing bagpipes. Their confusion is compounded by the fact that their tuba-playing mother/mother-in-law (Ellen Young) is hopping around their living room, having burned her foot on an iron. And things are not made any clearer by the arrival of a dim policeman named Holmes (Michael Glenn) and an inspector named Foote (Carlos Bustamante), who is soon taking off his shoe and sock to change a light bulb.
The playwright’s celebrated wit informs every line, as well as the carefully plotted images that accompany them. The play’s first image is of a woman in evening dress watching a man in hip-high wading boots who is blowing on a hanging electric lamp that’s attached by a pulley system to a bowl of fruit, while a body with a bowler hat on its stomach lies on a coffee table. There turns out to be a gratifying—and perfectly illogical—explanation for every detail, and if the playfulness isn’t in the service of undercurrents as serious as in Longacre Lea’s previous Stoppard smash, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, it’s still funny as ever.
And anyway, Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter comes along after intermission to add all the menace and creepiness the evening requires. Oddly, Pinter does so by making everything (and nothing) absolutely clear. The play finds two armed thugs (Glenn, and Dan Brick) awaiting instructions, whiling away their time with all sorts of explicit, concrete acts. They argue about lighting stoves, flushing toilets, reading newspapers. Then they hear a noise behind a wall, open a dumbwaiter door, and discover what appear to be restaurant orders for steaks, chips, and tea without sugar. Again, perfectly explicit and concrete. Not having those items, they send up what they do have until they have nothing left to send. Still the commands come, and as their incomprehension grows, so does the show’s tension.
Akerley’s antic, animated production exploits the obvious similarities in the setups of the three works, then links them thematically through casting and a common, slightly off-the-beam set, and by creating an evening-long arc of tonal shifts that take audiences from innocent absurdity to troubling absurdism. The performances she’s coaxed from her performers range from amusing to sublime. Allen and Owen, actors I’ve probably seen but don’t remember, bring such hilarious inflections to the playing of two lovers who’ve probably met but don’t remember that no one who hears their verbal duet is ever likely to forget them again. You’ll have to wander a bit off the area’s beaten theatrical track to find them and their compatriots (they’re at Catholic U’s Callan Theater), but it’s definitely worth the trek.
Even farther from the city’s usual theatrical haunts—proudly and deliberately farther, it turns out—is the new H Street Playhouse at 1365 H St. NE, which is being inaugurated by the Theater Alliance with an evening of stories based on Roman myth. Fittingly, Tales From Ovid operates as an incantation of sorts, but it’s anything but stodgy or declamatory. Call it an orgy of storytelling, urgent and contemporary as any patron might wish.
An earth-toned dropcloth covers the floor as the audience enters, but when the stage lights come up after a brief blackout, the dropcloth no longer lies flat. It’s in the process of settling gently back to earth, and it’s settling in a lumpy, erratic way that suggests mountain ranges and valleys. A cast member speaks of air, earth, fire, and water, then whisks the cloth away to reveal the rest of the acting company underneath, at first corpselike, then writhing to life to embody both myths that you likely know—about, say, that wine-loving frat boy Bacchus—and others that are less familiar.
It’s a question—”Who takes greater pleasure in the act of love, men or women?”—that gets things under way, and soon the stage is populated by nests of copulating serpents, flocks of neck-craning birds, and more rutting gods and resisting mortals than you can shake a stick at. More than sticks get shaken, actually, in Jeremy Skidmore’s inventive staging, which finds artful uses for arched bows, knotted ropes, and about an acre’s worth of glittering fabric. One piece of sheer blue silk seems almost to take on a life of its own as it stands in for the pool in which Narcissus sees his reflection.
After intermission, Ovid’s mood turns darker, with father-daughter liaisons, voyeurism, and rape among the themes. Poet Ted Hughes filled his translation of Metamorphoses, upon which this show is based, with evocative phrasing, and his stage adaptors, Tim Supple and Simon Reade, have made sure that every verb resonates. “Lust bristled up his thighs,” says one godly observer. “Give me the strength to twist his limbs from their sockets,” says a less enthused mortal.
Among the standouts in a cast that’s a tad uneven but strong where it needs to be: Sam Elmore’s forcefully blunt King Pentheus and his horrified hunter who gets turned into a stag; Aubrey Deeker’s lithe, creepily randy Bacchus; and the differently vulnerable heroines played by Kathleen Coons. Ayun Fedorcha’s sharply etched lighting and Peter Finnegan’s sound design are also assets.
The Theater Alliance’s new playhouse, incidentally, may be new to live theater (it is, in fact, the only professional stage in Northeast), but local residents with long memories will recall the address’s previous incarnation as a cinema. Once a Plymouth auto showroom, the building was pressed into service as a movie house during World War II and continued operating as the Plymouth Theater until 1952. In subsequent decades it saw furniture, skating, printing, and restaurant enterprises come and go. Now, a $100,000 renovation has turned it into a pleasant, low-ceilinged black-box space, with 100 thickly cushioned seats and a resident company dedicated to planting theater in previously untested soil. It’s off to a heady start, and fans of substantial, challenging work would be as well-advised to discover it as audiences were to discover Arlington’s Signature Theater and the Washington Shakespeare Company a decade ago, and 14th Street’s Source and Studio Theatres a decade before that. CP