I’m going to hazard a guess that director John Going has been watching too much Nick at Night. In seasons past, he always seemed to know the difference between comedy of ideas, slapstick, boulevard sketches, and vaudeville. These days, everything he touches turns to sitcom. Even, sad to say, Arms and the Man, which ought to at the very least nod in the direction of operetta as it descends to the realm of Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie.
Arms is George Bernard Shaw’s “chocolate cream soldier” comedy, in which a routed 19th-century captain takes refuge in the bedroom of a starry-eyed ingénue who turns out to be the daughter of a ranking enemy officer. Being an incurable romantic, she feeds him candies and hides him from the firing squad, though he might well regard this as a mixed blessing since, being a Shavian heroine, she then pretty much talks him to death.
In Act 1, the author has a high time contrasting the captain’s practical cynicism and the ingénue’s misguided notions about heroism. Then, with the arrival of her peacock of a fiancé (who led the foolish but successful cavalry charge that routed the captain), and some chiming in by servants (pragmatic Nicola and acerbic Louka are, of course, much smarter than their masters), there’s a stab at exploring class conflict, too.
At the Olney Theatre, where a structural problem with a roof joist behind the proscenium arch is prompting a seasonlong experiment in thrust staging, all of this looks fine but plays numbingly, with the director’s single-minded pursuit of laughs reducing Shaw’s epigrammatic banter to a series of clumsy-sounding punch lines. The auditorium has never felt as cozy as it does now, with the stage covering the first few rows of seats, but any benefit this newfound intimacy might offer is squandered almost as soon as the lights come up, when the ingénue (Allison Krizner) and her mother (Halo Wines) start exchanging girlish squeals that would be overstated in a production of Bye Bye Birdie.
Things whoosh rapidly downhill from there. By Act 2, between the accents, the mugging, and the general shrillness of an eight-member cast that’s posturing in at least six different performance styles, you’d swear Going was intent on transforming the evening into an episode of I Love Louka.
Sarah Ripard, who plays the willful, insubordinate servant who would be the heroine of such an episode, does get a chance or two to prove she’s a graceful comedienne while fending off passes from Rex Young’s posturing Bulgarian officer. He’s the only other person on the premises who can execute physical comedy with any flair, and pretty uproariously manages to suggestwhile self-absorbedly pulling on doors he should be pushing, and sending riding crops flying into the shrubberythat his character is being betrayed by a capricious universe.
The other performances merely suggest that Shaw is being betrayed by capricious staging.
At the Clark Street Playhouse, I got betrayed by my own misguided expectations of Washington Shakespeare Company’s And Then There Were None, but only for a few moments. Having misread a press release, I was expecting the troupe to stage Agatha Christie’s whodunit as if it had been written by Harold Pinter (sounds like fun, no?), and was surveying Michael Murray’s setting for hints of the nonspecific, indeterminate menace that Pinteresque Christie would require.
Instead, there was Christiesque specificity everywherecopper deco accouterments anchoring the period firmly in the ’30s, 10 spotlit Oscarlike figurines supporting a gleaming banister (three of Hollywood’s versions have been titled Ten Little Indians), and on and on. When the lights came up on a pair of frolicking lesbians in toreador pants, it was clear the evening would not be trekking off to the no man’s land inhabited by the inventor of the ominous pause.
Red herring city. Turns out, what WSC’s press release had actually promisedand what the troupe was now deliveringwas not Pinteresque Christie but Christie with the “edge” the company brings to its more absurdist works as a matter of course. That’s not nearly as outré, obviously, but it proves entertaining enough as marshalled by director John Emmert.
The plot, about 10 strangers who start dropping dead in odd circumstances almost as soon as they get marooned on an island with no phone, is vintage Christiewhich is to say it engages comparatively few brain cells, but engages them totally. Everyone has motives aplenty, from Brian Hemmingsen’s hulking thug to Rosemary Regan’s Bible-thumping moralist to Nanna Ingvarsson’s languorously sexy secretary to Caren Anton’s pragmatic judge. And the performances are mostly as stylized as Murray’s set, which is saying something.
The show also gives Edu. Bernardino an opportunity to extend his winning streak as WSC’s resident costumer. This time he has designed a parade of elegant gowns (including a form-fitting slit-to-the-hip number in white that allows Ingvarsson to make what has to be the season’s flashiest entrance), and severely tailored suits, one of which the designer himself gets to model as a teetotaling, very nervous nerve doctor.
Production savvy aside, Agatha Christie remains an odd choice for WSC, which was founded in 1990 on the premise that small-theater actors deserved a crack at the sort of literary scripts small theaters rarely produce. More in keeping with that mission, clearly, is Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, which was scheduled for this slot until rights difficulties interfered. Adroit as everyone is in And Then There Were None, the evening doesn’t allow its usually adventurous creators to do much in the way of stretching. Still, it’s an easy sell and a crowd-pleaser, and given theater economics it’s hard to begrudge a troupe one of thosehowever mindlessevery seven years or so.
A tougher assignment in every respect, and a triumph in all but one, Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal (in a fine new translation by Jeremy Sams) is a vivid reminder of why D.C. theatergoers have proved willing over the years to trek out to the far reaches of Silver Spring in search of grown-up entertainment. Far from the Metro and most other signs of civilization, Round House Theatre has developed one of the area’s most reliable repertory companies, and it is feverishly turning Anouilh’s parlor trick of a play into a compelling lesson in theatrical and moral artifice.
The evening begins frothily, with a group of decadent 1950s aristocrats rehearsing The Double Inconstancy, a 17th-century commedia dell’arte work by Marivaux that they plan to spring on the guests at next week’s dinner party. This initial lightness is deceptive. The Marivaux opus is all about seduction, lies, and the collapse of decency, so naturally Anouilh’s is too. The central character, a womanizing Count (played with debauched world-weariness by Jerry Whiddon), has had the inspiration of deliberately typecasting the play-within-a-play. He has given himself the role of romantic lead, and cast his suspicious wife (Jane Beard) and insincere mistress (Helen Hedman) as duelling gossips, his cynically bitter best friend (Marty Lodge) as the villain, his wife’s idiot lover (Jon Tindle) as a clown, his wife’s dull accountant (Conrad Feininger) as a bore. The count’s master stroke, however, is the casting of the accountant’s fresh, guileless niece (Mary Teresa Fortuna), with whom he is hopelessly in love, as a sweet, virginal love object.
Life, being artificial among midcentury aristocrats anyway, immediately begins imitating art, and Anouilh blurs the lines between backstage bickering and play-within-a-play rehearsals so that it’s never quite clear whether characters are “acting” or merely acting out.
At Round House, where subscribers see these performers often enough (Beard, Lodge, and Whiddon especially) to get a voyeuristic charge out of the backstage sequences, the intricacy of the situation gets subtly compounded. And with director Tom Prewitt encouraging his performers to pose and preen for one another as much as they do for us, it’s compounded again. (It’s dizzying to imagine what the first staging in Paris must have been like, mounted byof all companiesthe Théâtre Marivaux.)
The presumptive intimacy of this conception pays off when the plot starts to take some nasty, Liaisons Dangereuses turns after intermission. With cynicism triumphing over innocence, and a grudge that’s lasted decades destroying the only purity and love any of these characters could ever know, the story, though comic well into the second act, actually gets surprisingly harrowing. Anouilh gave the play an alternate titleLove Punishedthat truly fits. No one will escape unscathed.
Prewitt complements the play-within-a-play conceit by lowering one of designer Anne Gibson’s painted backdrop curtains during the second act, to reveal an elevated stage-within-a-stage into which he squeezes the evening’s big emotional showdown. (The stage design, though it’s certainly cleverly conceived, is the one production element that doesn’t quite work. Gibson has painted folds on flat curtains that she has also slit so that the effect of real folds can be simulated during entrances and exits. Alas, the design is executed in such ugly reds and golds that its garishness overwhelms its effectiveness. One reason the smaller pocket-stage works so well is that Prewitt must dim the lights on the rest of the set to use it.)
This director has almost always used space in intriguing wayshe had Greek gods crawling out of subway grates in Elektra a few seasons backbut this particular device is a real corker. Not only is constricting the movement of the characters to a tight, candle-lit playing space a smart way to intensify the claustrophobic situation of a young girl’s seduction by a manipulative villain, but it’s also wonderfully counterintuitive, since the scene is part of Anouilh’s play, not the commedia dell’arte work within it. The audience is thus led down a devilishly tricky path, encouraged to see role-playing in the characters’ offstage relationships in the same light as role-playing between actors who are “acting,” and to acknowledge the real-life price of a betrayal, while delighting in its theatrical effect. It’s a nifty construct, and one that seems as carefully considered as the performances.
All of those, incidentally, are terrific, with Beard’s calculating Countess and Lodge’s conflicted but monstrous drunk consuming so much oxygen as they burn in their own private hells that the comparative innocents onstage often seem to be gasping for air. Even Whiddon’s thoroughly depraved Count isn’t so jaded that he can’t have the breath knocked out of him by a well-timed betrayal, or a smile from Fortuna’s brave little naif. Feininger’s scandalized accountant and Hedman’s chilly mistress are forever being blown this way and that by chance remarks. And Tindle’s hilariously obtuse, gawkily lovesick clown”I will not be made to look ridiculous,” he fumes, with multicolored feathers sticking at odd angles from his hideous wigis pretty much a show in himself. Definitely worth the trek to Silver Spring.CP