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For some reasonthe title, probablyI was expecting A House in the Country to be Chekhovian. Before entering the Glaser-Luchs Studio Theatre, I pictured a crumbling Russian estate, and I could almost hear the rustle of dried leaves and feel the suffocating ache of familial betrayal.
So it came as a bit of a shock to discover that all the crumbling, rustling, and aching playwright Peter Coy had dreamed up for his vivid, muscular drama would be taking place in Appalachian hill country some “25 miles outside Waynesboro.” That’s where Asa (Mark Rhea) and his wife, Mary (Lee Mikeska Gardner), spot the dilapidated farmhouse of their dreamsa sprawling Victorian manse with a wraparound porch that would make a perfect perch for their toddler’s playpen if the whole place weren’t on the verge of falling down.
There’s a barn out back, plus land enough that a family could dream of paradiseand actually live the dream. Alas, in Charter Theatre’s excruciatingly intimate drama, the couple’s happy discovery is a flashback, an escape from a far less happy time in their marriage. Asa and Mary can barely bring themselves to look at each other in the play’s opening moments, but in recounting their first sighting of the house that gives the evening its title, they’re transformed into the high school sweethearts they once were. For both of them, the appearance of the house around a bend in the road is what can only be described as a “Eureka!” momentthe sort that inspires “long grocery lists of dreams.”
Still, flashbacks tell only part of the story, and dreaming clearly isn’t what’s on the present-day Mary’s mind when she spits out a vitriol-laden memory that “Asa wanted to plant trees.” Somewhere in her transition from lovesick youngster to alienated spouse, she soured on their shared Eden. The question of why hangs in the air…and hangs and hangs.
Offering clues as to what might have happened are a pair of interlopers. Holly (Kerri Rambow) is a single mother who develops a crush on Asa while watching him read in her bookstore; Hans (Michael Kramer) is a juggling, balloon-animal-making professor at the education conference Mary visits when her marriage starts to feel suffocating. Even from so skimpy a description, you can no doubt guess where the plot is headed. Fortunately, what’s intriguing is less the destination than the route traveled.
For in Keith Bridges’ eloquently simple staging, as the characters chatter on about pitted walls, rotten floorboards, and mortar that turns to sand at the slightest touch, your mind can’t help turning to the state of their disintegrating relationships. Asa and Mary may love their house, but it’s falling apart, much as they love each other but are growing apart. And as Rhea’s seriously warped Asa struggles stoically to strengthen the structure of his new home only to see the structure of his marriage crumble, the evening becomes a domestic tragedy of uncommon resonance.
A House in the Country has to be called a testament to Charter Theatre’s mission of developing new scripts. Whereas most contemporary authors recycle linear plot techniques from TV and film, Coy’s writing is intensely theatricaloblique and direct in about equal measure, clever about bending time and place. There are a few problemsgenuinely disturbing speeches, for instance, that would be even more effective if they didn’t seem to come out of nowherebut nothing that can’t be tweaked. Besides, Coy is adept enough at dropping tantalizing hints about character and incident that he can trust his audience to fill in the blanks.
With a cast as sharp and persuasive as this one, that’s easy, especially in the claustrophobic confines of Charter’s church basement, where watching four of the city’s most prepossessing actors at such close range is a heady, almost voyeuristic experience. Rhea and Gardner are so creepily well-matched that their clawing at each other becomes downright harrowing in the play’s final moments. Rambow has never done smarter, more vulnerable work, and Kramer, though he juggles only passably compared with the folks over at Cirque du Soleil, establishes early on that he’s been away from local stages far too long. If there are finer performances anywhere in town at the moment, I haven’t seen them.
I spent the better part of my weekend seeing theater in nontheatrical spaces, an exercise I almost always enjoy. There’s definitely something to that three-planks-and-a-passion impulse that infects itinerant troupes. And whatever it is, it’s out in full force in the high-ceilinged, bar-hugging front room at the Metro Cafe, where the belligerently youthful Project Y is staging Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, a cautionary tale about plague mentality.
Though Wallace writes of a group of strangers left behind to die during the 1665 pestilence, in which a panicked British aristocracy locked London’s gates from the outside when it fled to the country, she clearly wants audiences to think of a more contemporary plague. Why else would her characters spend so much of their time chattering on about body fluids and sex?
And chatter they do, from the moment a filthy sailor breaks into a wealthy couple’s house and pisses into a fine vase. The couple is aghast, but they’re not nearly as shockable as they first appear. Hubby turns out to have an unseemly interest in what sailors do with themselves at sea when there are no ladies present, and Wifey (who is hiding a dark secret under her long white gloves and frilly gowns) can’t get her mind off the oozing sore in the sailor’s side. An adolescent girl has also dropped by to torment everyone with truth-telling and to have her toes sucked by a horny guard (who sometimes wears a lit barbecue grill on his head).
There is, in short, no paucity of incident in One Flea Spare. Nor can the evening be called short on vivid verbiage; “Sparrows fall dead from the skies into the hands of beggars” is a pretty typical locution. Whether all this blue activity and purple prose add up to much is an open question, but it’s certainly arresting in Michole Biancosino’s resourceful staging. She’s aided by an adept cast and clever design work that would be even more clever if it were just a tad sparer.
In light of the fact that several of Project Y’s founders got their start with Potomac Theatre Project (PTP), it’s intriguing that Wallace’s stylistic flourishes so resemble those of political British dramatist and poet Howard Barker, whose ferocious diatribes No End of Blame, Scenes From an Execution, and The Castle were all championed locally by PTP. Though Wallace hails from Kentucky, her work is also better known in Britain than here. Project Y could do worse in its future seasons than to adopt the same sort of proprietary attitude toward her work that PTP did toward Barker’s, and try to correct that situation.
When Washington Stage Guild was evicted from Carroll Hall last year, the company emerged reborntighter, smarter about design work, and decidedly more intimate. There are signs that something similar might happen with Gala Hispanic Theatre now that it has been forced to vacate its formal proscenium auditorium on Park Road.
The troupe’s first show in the rough-and-tumbledown confines of 7th Street’s Warehouse TheaterFederico García Lorca’s Así Que Pasen Cinquo Años (“Once Five Years Pass”)is hardly an unalloyed pleasure, but it’s more cleanly designed than many recent Gala shows and has more than a few graceful moments.
Así Que Pasen belongs to that peculiar species the psychological dream play, a hybrid form that mixes surrealism and whimsy, and seems to have held a real fascination for 20th-century artists who were intent on reinventing theatrical form. Tennessee Williams (Camino Real) and Kurt Weill (Lady in the Dark) are among the many who tinkered with dream plays in careers otherwise given over to more conventional work.
In Así Que Pasen, Federico García Lorca presents audiences with a young man (known simply as the Young Man) who arrives at the house of an Old Man to finally claim a Fiancée for whom he agreed to wait five years. Upon discovering that she has just this minute eloped with a Football Player, he wanders dejectedly through forest and circus, talking to cats and clowns, and eventually risking everything in a card game. Style’s the whole point with exercises like this, and Lorca has style for days.
Gala’s staging doesn’t, though directors Hugo Medrano and Gabriel García begin it with a pair of eloquently still, starkly spotlit images of callow youth and wise but cantankerous old age. Once the figures in those images begin to talk, things get fussier, with much manipulating of bolts of cloth, masks, and 10-foot-tall uninhabited wedding dresses, and, eventually, an attempt to fill the Warehouse auditorium with broad circus effects. The directors follow a similar trajectory in sonic terms, beginning in relative calm and building to a level that’s unnecessarily shrill, as if neither they nor the actors realize they needn’t work as hard in an intimate, 100-seat house as they did in the larger space they just left.
Through it all, however, there’s Lorca’s evocative languagetranslated on headset in effectively vivid English (“The harp of the rain is silent, the last waves laughing shadows in a sea that has turned to stone”)which is always worth listening to simply as poetry. CP