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“We paint the air with our words,” says one of the three women in Zander’s Boat. And damned if they don’t.

They paint with words that conjure sadness and loss as well as euphoria, words that capture how life gets lived when the world is looking the other way. Words that gently insist, and that deftly cajole, and that add up to one of the most evocative tone poems you’ll have heard in the theater in some time.

Writer-director Grace Barnes hails from Scotland, so the tales her characters tell have an exotic lilt, but they’ll be familiar to anyone who’s had—or who’s even contemplated having—children. They center on feelings: the desperation of a mother who’s lost a son, a daughter’s annoyance when she can’t get her parents to stop praying every time she gets on a boat. The stories—interwoven monologues, for the most part—don’t really gather dramatic force, but in the Signature Theatre’s moody, windswept staging, they do have a cumulative power.

The three storytellers are at different stages of life. Sylvia (Colleen Delany) is barely in her 20s, with a once-blissful marriage that’s souring for want of children and an insecure husband. Career woman Marie (Amy McWilliams) opted to forgo kids, so she and her spouse have creature comforts to spare, but she’s feeling antsy enough about the life she’s chosen that she’s questioning everything from her decision to quit smoking to her sexuality. And 60-something Edith (Linda High) is coping with the death of a son, Zander, whom she adored when he was a small child but began to dislike as he became his own man. The evening takes its title (and some sweet bits of stage business) from the seaworthy craft that Edith and Zander talked of building when he was a toddler and wanted nothing more than to sail away with his mom.

Barnes’ writing ranges from plain-spoken depictions of the real world (“He hadn’t married me because he loved me; he married me because he thought I’d make a good mother for his son”) to quasi-poetic evocations of the characters’ dreams (“a journey to the place I see when I close my eyes and wish for more”). And Barnes rewards the ear so often with felicitous phrases and images that merely having to listen a little more closely than usual to catch the odd unfamiliar phrase as three sterling actresses send their lines spiraling into the imagination is hardly a burden.

Set designer Eric Grims has crafted a spare Shetland Island beach out of little more than rocks and netting, and Jonathan Blandin bathes it in such watery blues and greens that the action seems almost to plunge beneath the waves on occasion. But for all its grace in production, the evening belongs firmly to Barnes’ words.

The eloquence of the Elizabethan playwright who wrote Tamburlaine the Great isn’t much in evidence in David Grimm’s rambunctiously coarse epic Kit Marlowe. The title character—a literary tyro and notorious bad boy—when rebuffed by a swain at Studio Secondstage with the admonishment that “Any man taken for sodomy will be hung,” can come up with nothing better than “He’d better be, or what’s the fucking point?”

This is hardly the sort of line one might hope for from the second-greatest playwright of his age, but then, Grimm seems to be trying to craft a sort of Marlowe in Lust, not Shakespeare in Love. His plot centers on a romantic friendship between the title character (Jon Cohn) and an aristocrat named Thomas Walsingham (Carlos Bustamante), who were lovers as adolescents. They still have a yen for each other, though they’re not acting on their feelings, because Walsingham believes it’s his duty to get married and Marlowe isn’t interested in being a kept man. With Marlowe’s plays not selling, however, the young author needs an income, so he begs an introduction to Walsingham’s uncle (Ray Hagen), a creepy S&M freak who heads Queen Elizabeth’s security detail. Marlowe takes a blood oath to defend the monarchy and is promptly sent undercover to France, where he helps uncover a Stuart plot that may or may not involve Sir Walter Raleigh (John Slone).

Walsingham, meanwhile, makes an alliance with the foppish Earl of Essex (Dan Via in a Rita Hayworth wig), who helps him make an appropriate marital match after they gossip about how Raleigh’s chief claim to fame rests in his having dug up “topatos” in Virginia. Still with me? Well, there’s also mention of the Black Plague, French counterfeiting, and various other historical details that suggest Grimm did some homework on the period, not to mention a longish discussion of how Marlowe modeled the hero of Tamburlaine the Great on Raleigh.

Now, if you know that Marlowe died at the ripe age of 29 in a tavern brawl, and that such august sources as the Oxford Companion to the Theatre say he was “probably assassinated because of his secret service activities,” this may all strike you as intriguing. Or not. That Shakespeare’s most esteemed literary rival was too busy being a buggery-obsessed James Bond to scribble many plays—even if true—is perhaps the least interesting answer to as interesting a mystery as imaginable.

In any event, Grimm gives the notion what spin he can, complete with sodomy jests that amount to single-entendres, along with plenty of murders. And Studio’s actors are all game—particularly Cohn, who makes his first entrance nude, swinging Tarzan-style from a rope, then leaves the fly on his leather pants unzipped so he can wave his penis defiantly when told to behave with a bit more circumspection. He also delivers his lines with more flair than they deserve. Bustamante looks ridiculous in the short pants and tailored jacket provided by costumer Levonne Lindsay, but he’s reasonably appealing. Via is a hoot as Essex, especially when balancing on boards in the woods, trying to keep mud off his shoes.

The others have their moments, but nothing about Mike Chamberlin’s energetically overchoreographed production suggests that there’s more to the script than immediately meets the ear. He has managed to work in more knees to the groin than I’ve seen in the last three seasons of D.C. plays, though, which I suppose is saying something. CP