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From the look of Maggie Tulliver’s hair, you’d swear she’d been struck by lightning, but it’s ideas that are charging the air around her. An adolescent with an agile, questing mind, she has passions so urgent she can scarcely contain them.

When we meet Maggie in the exquisite stage adaptation of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss now being staged at the Eisenhower Theater, she’s reading about a foolproof test for uncovering witches: Drop any suspects in deep water and burn those who don’t prove their innocence by drowning. Behind her as she reads, a crowd on a ramshackle wooden bridge enacts her thoughts, forcibly plunging a woman through the bridge’s floor into a pool of icy green light and watching as she twists in the swift currents of the River Floss.

Maggie will herself be twisted this way and that as the twin currents of Victorian social conditioning and destiny swirl around her in Eliot’s story. But if this initial image offers an ominous preview of her fate, it also serves notice to the audience of the fierce brand of theatrical imagery being practiced by an extraordinary British company calling itself Shared Experience. Renowned in England for the urgency and physicality of its productions, Shared Experience

operates on the presumption that audiences hunger for theater that is more than text and spectacle. Using choreographed movement and the simplest of props, music, and eerie lighting effects, the troupe coaxes viewers into a rarefied expressionist world steeped in emotion. That’s not to say that the words in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation don’t matter. They’re plenty evocative, but they’re plain, spoken in rural English accents so thick that at times they verge on being unintelligible.

Still, clarity never suffers in Eliot’s tale of an independent-minded young woman struggling against the restraints of a society that doesn’t value female independence or even female minds. Maggie and her brother, Tom, are inseparable at the play’s outset, but their relationship frays as Tom is offered educational opportunities he doesn’t want while Maggie is forced to eschew the culture she craves to live the domesticated life expected of a rural woman in 19th-century England. Complicating matters is a family feud that comes between Maggie and her one kindred spirit—a misshapen young intellectual named Phillip who is, unfortunately, the son of her father’s worst enemy. Eager for the approval of her relatives, Maggie immerses herself in religion and self-denial, fulfilling not just her family’s expectations but also the conventions of Victorian melodrama, which require that true love run as unsmoothly as possible. Eliot sets a regular obstacle course of social, familial, and psychological hurdles in Maggie’s path, with the most devastating ones saved for the story’s cruel finale.

If Maggie is well and truly trapped in Mill on the Floss, the richness of the imagery conjured by directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale still makes her among the more spirit-liberating characters around. The Shared Experience production uses a staging device that seemed hopelessly arch a week or so ago in Constant Star but is flat-out revelatory here: It employs three actresses—Pauline Turner, Jessica Lloyd, and Caroline Faber—to play Maggie at different stages in her life. Turner plays the youngest Maggie with flyaway hair and manner to match. But when (in an eloquently effective moment involving a hand mirror) the more neatly coiffed Lloyd takes over from her, the youngest Maggie doesn’t disappear. Rather, she recedes temporarily from center stage, popping up again to put in her two pence’ worth whenever emotional events prompt mixed emotions in the character.

Later, when Faber takes over from Lloyd, both of the younger Maggies stick around, lending a striking complexity to the character’s reactions, say, when Tom strictly interprets a deal he and his sister have made about Maggie’s seeing Phillip. Because all three Maggies are onstage together, the audience can see, even as the mature Maggie deals responsibly with her obligations, how desperately the adolescent in her wants to please her brother and how furious the young woman in her is at his dictatorial ways. Fascinating, psychologically complex, and effortless, the device does worlds to illuminate a heroine who might otherwise have become quieter and less revealing as life dealt her body blows.

The urge to hurl critical bouquets at Mill on the Floss is all but irresistible, partly because the show really is stunning, brilliant, exhilarating, and all that, and partly because my powers of description are inadequate to the task of capturing in print the imagery it has engraved in my memory. Suffice it to say that one slow-motion underwater sequence—in which rescuing fingertips keep coming tantalizingly close to their goal before being swirled away by a raging current that, I swear, seems entirely visible—prompted first breath-holding and then audible sobs from every patron sitting near me at the opening. I can’t do the moment justice, so I won’t try.

The evening is superbly designed—only a couple of local offerings in the past decade have conjured a theatrical environment so effectively. It’s also strikingly acted, by a phenomenal cast that doubles and triples in roles so persuasively that at the curtain call, there don’t seem nearly enough bowing performers to account for all the characters. I found myself looking into the wings, waiting to applaud the folks who’d been so compelling just a few scenes earlier as a penurious aunt and soft-spoken uncle, before realizing that they were already onstage, costumed as one of the Maggies and the handsome suitor who’d loved her ardently enough to exile himself. I’m an old hand at this suspension-of-disbelief thing, yet I got swept away by Mill on the Floss in ways I’ve not allowed myself to be since I was a kid. I suspect sharing the experience of Shared Experience will have a similar effect on most viewers. (A hint to bargain hunters: Tickets for all Tuesday performances are half-price if you ask for the “Home Page Discount” at the time of purchase. But if Tuesday tickets are gone by the time you try, Mill on the Floss is worth full price.)

As You Like It—another show with an intriguingly complex heroine—is being performed at the Folger Theatre as almost anyone with any sense would like it, which is to say, hilariously and with surprising sensitivity. Let’s deal with the hilarity first.

Aaron Posner’s staging boasts not merely triple casting but even quintuple casting, with supporting performers shifting ages, accents, and genders so incessantly that to keep them from tripping over themselves they are required to engage in some very tricky subterfuges. I have it here in my notes that “actress Kate Norris holds himself in her own arms through puppetry,” and though I could doubtless make sense of that if given sufficient space, you’ll have more fun if I let you discover the whys and wherefores for yourself. Ditto the event that forces the recruitment of not only two audience members but also the lighting technician as onstage fill-ins.

As You Like It is the comedy in which Rosalind (Holly Twyford at her most fetchingly goofy) dresses up as a boy to outfox a wrathful Duke and in that guise somehow manages to persuade her unwitting beloved, Orlando (a winningly vulnerable Jerry Richardson), to woo her as wistfully as ever swain wooed sweetheart. Some stagings use the plot’s forced transvestism to set up gender-confusion comedy, with Orlando questioning his own sexual orientation as he finds himself drawn to Rosalind in drag, but Posner has so much other cross-dressing going on that he opts for an approach that feels more like classic vaudeville clowning.

The performances are sharp throughout, from Andrew Ross

Wynn’s wrestler/flamer/balladeer/slut to Norris’ geezer/lord/coed/clown. And Tony Cisek’s immensely clever set design, which creates a forest of columns in the first act, then topples the columns to create a more literal forest of tree trunks thereafter, would be inspired even if the Folger’s two immovable pillars hadn’t long been considered an almost insurmountable design problem.

But what makes the evening more than the sum of its many amusing parts is the ache that underlies the clowning. Shakespeare’s tale is one of banishment leavened by romance, not merely of romance run amok, and the actors make sure the pain of their separation from society is ever present as they apply the balm of intimacy. CP