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Four women wrestle with the demands of being women in the 10-by-10 playing area of DCAC’s black box theater, while uptown in the echoing open-air sweep of Carter Barron, a wastrel youth becomes a confident king, assuming without hesitation the burdens, the perks, and the pain of manhood and statecraft. Never let it be said that D.C. theater doesn’t offer variety.
“The good part about living in the world of the girl,” observes heroine Lili very early on in Theatre Conspiracy’s Why We Have a Body, “is that it prepares you for absurdity.” Clever and comic, marked equally by an unforced lyricism and a kind of primal, unspecific longing, Claire Chafee’s remarkably accomplished debut considers the implications of femininity in an era essentially hostile to it: “In our family,” Lili remembers her grandmother saying, “the men pass down the name, the women pass out hors d’oeuvres.”
Lili (Makela Spielman), a private investigator with a knack for loving unavailable women, and her sister Mary (Deb Randall), a more or less psychotic stick-up artist and sometime crossing guard who identifies a bit too much with Joan of Arc, are ostensibly interested in the whereabouts of their mother Eleanor (Marilyn Bennett), who has left them physically and emotionally alone to go exploring in Patagonia, or to paddle a canoe in the Yucatán, or to get a manicure in Sri Lanka. (All they seem to know for sure is that she’s missing, and that they miss her.) Lili, too, is at least on the surface concerned with pursuing Renee (Juliette Kelsey-Holland), a married paleontologist who may or may not be a lesbian but is definitely interested in a little private investigation of the subject.
But the play is really about a search for identity and meaning: Lili’s very first monologue is a meditation on a time before birth, “before I attached myself to the womb, in that tiny fall, when I was both, when I was anything, and could be anything, before the loss of becoming specific…before I became this shape of wanting you.” And among Mary’s more trenchant observations, offered as she stabs almost angrily at her face with lipstick and brush-on blush: “I just love that they call this ‘making yourself up.’” She’s wearing handcuffs because the script tells us she has just escaped from the back of a police van, but it’s hard not to think the restraints must be at least metaphorically linked to her bitter complaint, later in the evening, that “life is hard enough without having to lop off an entire column of human attributes in order to survive.”
Polar opposites in competence, Lili and Mary are equals in their yearning for their mother and for the answers they thinkhope?she has taken with her. But when Eleanor appears in pith helmet and a long white swatch of tulle in a desert dreamscape, it’s obvious she’s as uncertain as her daughters. “Lord, we know what we are,” she observes, quoting Ophelia, “but know not what we may be.”
Conceived, Chafee tells us, “from a well-spring of fragments and ruminations, conscious and part-conscious,” this achingly poetic, practically plotless bit of theater could’ve been insufferably coy, but Theatre Conspiracy’s Heather May directs it with a minimum of fuss and pretentiousness, and Chafee balances the metaphysics with deadly accurate wit and good humor, all handled with the lightest of touches, avoiding stridency at all costs.
The cast (Spielman, in the interests of full disclosure, is a Washington City Paper receptionist) is agreeably graceful. Designer Jos. Musumeci Jr. gets more out of the DCAC space than one might have thought possible, using three tall, slanting flats to create four entrances and exits where there were never more than two; a tilted formica-topped table and a suspended aluminum chair pretty much round out the set. Costumier Anne M. McCaw spatters Mary’s raincoat, Lili’s trenchcoat, and Eleanor’s fishing vest with the same muddy pink muck that speckles the walls, but nobody ever comments on it; it’s up to the audience to figure out whether it’s a design conceit or a metaphorical gesture, which just adds to the intrigue.
There’s far less ambiguity about Henry V, with its rah-rah soliloquies about the valor of hearty Englishmen and its contempt for the effete French foe. The only intrigue involves a murderous plot by three of the king’s boyhood friends, and that’s uncovered early. But Michael Kahn’s stylized, impressionistic staging of Shakespeare’s rousing history, premiered in 1995 at the Lansburgh and resurrected for the outdoor Free-for-All at Carter Barron, is so loaded with imagery and visual wit that you may find yourself looking for metaphor where none was intended.
Does it mean anything, for instance, that the French ambassador holds three of the Dauphin’s insulting tennis balls trefoil-wise in one hand as King Harry waxes outraged at the “treasure” jest? Probably not, but in a production that conceives Shakespeare’s mannered French courtiers as preening fashion victims on 32-inch platform shoes, who can say for sure? Rigid, balletic fight choreography, a recurring joke involving a pair of trenchcoat-clad interpreters, and Loy Arcenas’ post-industrial steel-and-stone set help establish an air of abstract artifice that frames and highlights Harry Hamlin’s tightly controlled, highly personal performance in the title role. He and Kahn make the indisputably heroic story of Henry’s political coming of age seem a more human (and humane) tale than even Shakespeare might have guessed. Worth mentioning: Vivienne Benesch’s utterly charming French princess, and two deft, precise comic turns by Jason Kravits (Nym) and Jarlath Conroy (Fluellen).CP