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Source Theatre is billing Craig Lucas’ entertaining dramedy The Dying Gaul as a cyber-thriller, and it’s easy to see how the troupe arrived at that description, though it’s essentially misleading.
The evening details how Robert, a grieving, deeply spiritual writer, comes to believe that his recently deceased lover is talking to him on a gay Internet chat line. Robert is actually being manipulated by someone who’s determinedly corporeal—I’m not giving anything away here; we see his correspondent from her first keystroke—but thrills aren’t really what the play is courting. Yes, the story hinges on adultery, million-dollar payoffs, and intimations of murder, but Lucas treats all of those as side issues, concentrating instead on exploring the hows and whys of Robert’s willingness to believe he’s been contacted by a lover he knows to be dead.
Lucas is the guy who wrote Longtime Companion (an AIDS-ravaged love story), Prelude to a Kiss (about an afterlife flirtation), and Reckless (about a woman who keeps leaping into dysfunctional relationships), so he’s traversed much of The Dying Gaul’s territory before. The title The Dying Gaul comes from the arty, quasi-autobiographical screenplay Robert (Larry Baldine) sells to a smooth-as-silk Hollywood executive named Jeffrey (Howard W. Overshown). From what we hear of this script, it doesn’t sound remotely commercial, but Jeffrey assures Robert that with some nips, tucks, and heterosexualizing, it’ll be a perfect vehicle for everyone from Tom Cruise to Sigourney Weaver. Robert has qualms about selling out in this way, especially with a story about his lover’s death, but when Jeffrey dangles a cool million for the rights—and sweetens the offer with a kiss—he succumbs.
Jeffrey’s wife, Elaine (Lucy Newman-Williams), then enters the picture. Feeling threatened by her husband’s relationship with his new screenwriter, she sneaks into the office of Robert’s analyst (John Emmert), where she gleans enough information to pose as firstname.lastname@example.org in Robert’s favorite sex-chat room. Since the poor guy has loads of unresolved issues he hasn’t yet told his shrink about, this strategy is bound to cause everyone all sorts of additional grief.
Now, already (at this point we’re barely a half-hour in), Lucas’ plot has holes big enough to drive caravans through. But for at least another hour, the author manages to sustain his conceit with an engaging blend of wit and psychobabble. Lucas has always been good at finding entertaining ways for his characters to stammer, obfuscate, and beat around the bush, and for as long as everyone’s hiding crucial information, the conversation sparkles. As soon as anyone has to declare himself, however—and the second act is filled with proclamations about Hollywood, Buddhism, sex, undying love, poisonous plants, and all manner of other subjects—the chatter becomes flatfooted, and the plot twists obvious.
Luckily for Source’s production, the folks doing the chattering and twisting are terrific. Baldine is so vulnerable and appealing as Robert that he’s able to stride right past character inconsistencies the author strews in his way. Perhaps most astonishingly, he never comes across as flat-out stupid for buying the notion of spectral e-mail.
Overshown is assured and sexy as the bisexual film exec, while still suggesting that weakness lies behind his character’s manipulative machinations. Emmert can’t quite transform the shrink into more than a walking plot device, but his scenes are sharp and effective nonetheless. And Newman-Williams manages to make Elaine, whose self-deluding behavior qualifies as borderline-psychotic, surprisingly winning for a while.
Lofty Durham’s stripped-to-essentials staging is authoritative, well-paced, and especially resourceful in its use of David Lamont Wilson’s sound design, which lends a bristling tension to online sequences that might easily have felt static. What the director can’t do—and despite the rave reviews The Dying Gaul got in New York, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it, either—is elevate the script to the spiritual level on which Lucas seems to want it to operate. Theological and grief-counseling banter notwithstanding, what he’s penned is essentially a formulaic Hollywood confection—sort of You’ve Got Mail meets Fatal Attraction—with a gay twist that makes it a more likely box-office success on stage than on screen. The play is engaging enough as light entertainment, particularly when it’s mocking Hollywood affectations about everything from sex play to salad, but it’s awfully shallow.
Among the more gratifying local developments of the last few theater seasons is a newfound fearlessness among the doublet ‘n’ codpiece set. Where once our classical troupes trotted out traditional mountings of box-office-friendly warhorses, almost no one stages an Elizabethan production in Washington these days without taking a few liberties.
We’ve recently witnessed a Hamlet with such a split personality that it took four performers (only one of them male) to play him. The Shakespeare Theatre brought us a Caucasian Moor in Othello, Washington Shakespeare Company an all-distaff Taming of the Shrew, Keegan Theatre a Midsummer Night’s Dream cast attired in leather jackets and poodle skirts. Later this month, the Folger Theatre will host an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet called Shakespeare’s R&J.
Theaters have also decided that they and the city’s audiences are ready to explore darker corners of the Elizabethan repertory. In the past 24 months, D.C. patrons have had a chance to examine six of the Bard’s seven least-performed plays—Cymbeline, Pericles, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, King Henry VIII, and King John (missing is The Two Noble Kinsman)—as well as to sample some of Shakespeare’s competition (Marlowe’s Edward II and Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle) for playing time at the Globe.
Now comes Washington Shakespeare Company’s sardonic production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, which qualifies as the first local airing of Thomas Middleton’s dank Jacobean bloodfest in decades. If Jesse Berger’s streamlined version (the director reportedly kept 20 of the evening’s 35 scenes) doesn’t really make a case for the play’s inclusion in the contemporary classical rep, it’s still an intriguing artifact. Berger has given its tale of overweening vengeance a winking, postmodern spin that prompts laughs at seemingly Bard-inspired lines (“All the world’s a brothel pit”), while turning the evening into a brisk rush to (mis)judgment.
The story centers on Vindice, whose name broadcasts his vindictive nature. He’s not alone in being captioned in this way by the author: Other characters include Spurio (a bastard), Sordido (a creepy factotum), and Ambitioso and Supervacuo (a pair of comically craven idiot stepbrothers). Those names are helpful shorthand, since Middleton hasn’t Shakespeare’s flair for brushing in emotional traits amid descriptions of carnage.
Vindice (Jonathan Bailey) is the instigator of much of the carnage, and he has reason to be vengeful: His fiancee was seduced and poisoned by the royal family. So he hatches a plot with his brother, Hippolito (Mark Gladue), to wreak royal havoc by pimping for both the Duke (Ira Schorr) and the Duke’s legitimate son, Lussurioso (Waleed F. Zuaiter), and then seeing to it that their affairs go horribly wrong. The plot backfires on Vindice when he discovers that his own sister, Castiza (Caroline Kellogg), is the babe Lussurioso wants him to procure. Adding to Vindice’s disillusionment is the enthusiasm with which his mother greets her daughter’s overthrow when a little cash gets flashed her way. Things get far more complicated as the play proceeds, but the twists provide much of the fun, so I’ll not reveal any more.
Berger’s staging begins with a wordless prologue in which an innocent bride-to-be (another one, not Vindice’s) is assaulted by a smirking rapist. Then the production parades through similarly vivid tableaux to arrive at a Rocky Horror-esque danse macabre some two-and-a-half hours later. Some of the production’s imagery—a mix of authorial and directorial invention—is quite striking. I especially liked the notion of Vindice’s using the skull of his long-dead fiancee to top a mannequin with which he’s duping the Duke who killed her. But the notion is better than the acting that puts it across. If Bailey’s alternately wild-eyed and crafty Vindice is the strongest performance of the evening (followed closely by Gladue’s more subdued turn as his principled brother), they’re surrounded by players who range from adequate to something less than that.
Fortunately, Berger proves adept at crafting stage pictures that have interesting things going on in the corners when you’re tempted to look away from the folks in the spotlight. Greta Dowling’s decaying ruin of a set (her blackened proscenium arch appears to have been licked by the flames of hell) is suitably creepy, and Brian Keating’s orchestral flourishes effectively back the evening’s overarching melodrama with melody. It’s all much ado about less than usual, but for anyone who’s curious about Shakespeare’s 17th-century competition, The Revenger’s Tragedy provides an amusing peek at what one author was doing the year the Bard crafted Macbeth. CP