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You’re likely to have one of two understandable but wrongheaded reactions upon seeing Lovers and Executioners, Arena Stage’s terrific new adaptation of Montfleury’s 1669 comedy, La Femme Juge et Partie. If you go to a lot of classical theater, you’ll wonder where this Montfleury guy has been all your life. If you don’t go to a lot of classical theater, you’ll think you’ve entered a time warp and that Montfleury clearly had a firmer handle on life than his better-known contemporary, Molière.

As I say, neither reaction is quite on the money. Lovers and Executioners is referred to in its playbill as being “a comedy in verse after Montfleury, translated and adapted by John Strand.” Strand qualifies emphatically as a present-tense playwright, with comedies about AIDS and Oliver North to his credit, though a recent adaptation of Molière’s The Miser attests to his facility with 17th-century comedy forms. An Arena spokesperson says that perhaps 10 lines of Lovers and Executioners’ dialogue are direct translations from the French original and that the rest of this darkly hilarious evening about a woman who revenges herself on her unreasonably jealous husband is a free-form riff built on its structure—a blend of 17th- and 20th-century plot devices, jokes, and sensibilities.

Whatever. The result is a play that feels at once classic and freshly minted, historical and modern, raucous and refined, brightly poetic and emotionally scary. It begins in melodramatic shadows with a scene that might have sprung from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies—a man named Bernard (James Warwick) leaving his loving wife Julie (Judith Hawking) to die on a desert isle because he thinks she’s been unfaithful. The wind carries her plaintive cry to him as he sails away: “What have I done, husband? What have I done?”

Somehow Julie survives. Three years later, she returns to their hometown disguised as a young man named Frederic, accompanied by a fencing instructor (T J Edwards) who is helping her in hopes of winning her himself. Discovering that Bernard is wooing a flirtatious creature named Constance (tart-tongued Ellen Karas), Julie/Frederic initially enters the romantic fray as his rival, but with a preening Spaniard (J. Fred Shiffman, slicing the air with his sword at every opportunity) already loitering in the romantic wings, that’s one suitor too many. Besides, her real aim is more serious: to avenge her husband’s cruel treatment. When Bernard goes after a judicial appointment, she spies a way to do so, getting herself appointed judge, then bringing Bernard up on charges of murdering his wife. The play’s second half begins with a sequence every bit as dark as the first, with a black-robed Julie/Frederic sitting in judgment of Bernard under torture devices that suggest she means business. Just how seriously she means business is revealed as events unfold.

Harrowing stuff, no? But shot through with humor in a production that glories in finding comedy in human nature’s darkest corners. Strand’s plotting provides plenty of opportunities for conventional laughs, and Kyle Donnelly’s exuberantly witty staging doesn’t shrink from exploiting them. Julie’s drag act puts her in constant peril of being discovered, especially with the duel-happy Spaniard seeing her as a rival. And Bernard has a pair of comic servants—sublimely played by a randily skeptical Nancy Robinette and a goofily wily Wesley Mann—to provide an entirely different style of clowning. Still, the director’s work is most affecting when it’s walking a fine emotional tightrope between fury and fun. She seems to know that for the audience what makes the evening exciting is that the play takes chances, and that what she’s doing with it is even riskier.

Arena’s cast is pretty fabulous, and the company’s designers have kept the physical trappings that surround them spare, elegant, and iconic. Seeing the work they’ve done, it’s easy to imagine Lovers and Executioners having a long life on the repertory circuit in this country and in Britain and conceivably even getting translated back into French (no doubt much to the consternation of that country’s literary historians, who’ve long dismissed Montfleury). The evening’s a rush, plain and simple. Kudos to everybody.

Imagine that someone took a capsule description of The Elephant Man and inverted all the crucial elements. The freak on exhibition in a 19th-century sideshow thus becomes a black woman rather than a white man. Instead of having a big head, she has a big ass. The doctor who rescues her from the sideshow is interested in her body, not her mind. The language they speak, rather than being poetic and constantly surprising, is nonsensical and relentlessly repetitive. And the scenes they play are numbered, not upward from one, but downward from 31.

What you have imagined is Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, which is currently receiving its area premiere at Studio SecondStage. It’s a pretty terrible play—obvious, sloppy, and dull in its racializing of time-honored clichés about insensitive Victorians. And while Anton Dudley’s staging stylizes it to within an inch of what little life it has, his mixing and matching of devices is so scattershot it can’t actually be said to help matters much.

Parks gives him three characters and a narrator to work with. The narrator (Eric Jao) has the thankless task of turning flashcards with scene titles on them while barking those titles as if patrons couldn’t read. Then, when things get hot and heavy, he also gets to spout unhelpful authorial footnotes (“Town A, Town B, Town C, Town E…”) while pointing to maps and reference books.

The others are the Venus Hottentot, whose posterior causes such consternation (played in Africanized G-string and pasties by the pleasantly proportioned, luminously graceful Samarra Green), a Docteur (Desmond Dutcher), who is required at one point to masturbate while watching Venus eat chocolates, and a Mother Showman (Madeleine Burke), who mostly leers from the sidelines.

Joining them is an eight-member chorus that sometimes uses puppets and sometimes freezes in Story Theater postures or hides under stagewide blankets. These extras aren’t particularly useful, but because they’re wearing painted Groucho brows and black lipstick, they do provide welcome visual distraction from the playwright’s sloganeering. Race and buttocks are Parks’ two principal topics, occasionally in combination (“What a blackside!”), with sidesteps into hyperbole (“Venus had seen twelve hundred thousand cities”) and various list-quatrains. I’m assuming it’s the script that requires the repetition and chanting that inflates 30 minutes of material into more than two hours of stage time. If it’s the director, he should be horsewhipped. Fortunately, it quickly becomes clear that only the least important phrases are being accorded this treatment, which simplifies things: As soon as you hear a line a second time, you know you can stop puzzling out what it means.

Given the script, Studio’s embellishments qualify as creative, though Dudley sometimes courts confusion with staging that goes against the grain of the dialogue. If a line says, for instance, that customers paid two cents each to view Venus’ backside, shouldn’t her promoter be counting coins rather than bills to the refrain “10-20-30-40-50-60-70-80-90-100” (naturally repeated ad nauseam)?

Not that it much matters. Nothing Dudley or his generally capable cast could have done would have brought Venus to more than a semblance of stage life. Credit them with one apt thematic touch: the fact that you’re acutely conscious of your own backside while watching the show. Still, it’s hard to count that a plus. CP