Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Cigarettes and Chocolate begins with a series of quasi-frantic answering-machine messages (about which more in a moment), but it’s in the first words actually spoken on stage that author Anthony Minghella (who co-scripted and directed The English Patient) telegraphs his storytelling style.

“The day I stopped talking,” says his demure heroine, blurting out the sort of conversation-stopping detail most authors would, at the very least, save for the end of the sentence, “was one of those perfect days we have in England.” That, as it happens, is the play’s method in a nutshell—a surprising disclosure, followed by seemingly irrelevant information that one discounts at one’s peril. The author worked in a similar way in his screenplay for Truly, Madly, Deeply, and indeed, Cigarettes and Chocolate, originally conceived for radio, could be seen as a more politically astute companion piece to that pop romantic comedy.

In Cheryl Faraone’s lovely, hauntingly funny staging of Cigarettes and Chocolate at Olney Theatre—for Potomac Theatre Project (PTP), which has paired it with Radha Bharadwaj’s Closet Land as one of two evenings playing in repertory—Gemma (Sarah Ripard) is a cultured, intelligent woman who simply ceases communicating with her lovers, chums, and colleagues on a day she has marked arbitrarily on her calendar. Because she has given no reason for this change in behavior, they’re each convinced they’ve somehow caused it, and beginning with those increasingly urgent phone messages she never answers, they say a good deal more than they intend in their efforts to get her talking again. “I’ll bet you’re getting all these wonderful confessions,” says one, pretty much hitting the nail on the head.

Gemma’s lover (James Matthew Ryan) and her best friend (Lee Mikeska Gardner) assume she has discovered the affair they’ve been conducting behind her back, though nothing could be further from the truth. A painfully shy suitor (Blake Montgomery) tries to retract a love note he sent in a brief moment of strength. And a pregnant blabbermouth (Carrie Baker) urges her not to be jealous of an unborn child, slowly confiding that she’s not even sure she wants to have it. Through all this—and much more, including some hilariously obsessive riffs on garbage, Vietnamese babies who might just be Dutch, and Hispanic maids who moonlight as psychiatrists—Gemma sits quietly, listening to Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” betraying not a glimmer of reproach, which only makes everyone feel guiltier.

There are, this being a PTP production, political overtones to Gemma’s conviction that words make no difference. She’s not merely saying actions speak louder, she’s making even inaction speak louder, and as her silence prompts increasingly bizarre responses from her compatriots, your ear does become attuned to what isn’t being said about such subjects as bag ladies who need a meal and apartments where the heat can’t be turned off. Minghella’s writing is as evocative as it is well spoken by PTP’s fine cast (and not spoken by Ripard, who is splendid in her stillness).

Perhaps, given this silence-is-golden context, the less said about the second half of the evening the better. Radha Bharadwaj’s Closet Land is a dictatorship interrogation drama of the sort that no one but Harold Pinter ever seems to write very well. The form’s outlines are time-honored: fuzzy motives for the interrogator, hazy innocence for the prisoner, elliptical dialogue, violence that’s mostly psychological. The genre is all about threats and dominance, Big Brother and helpless proles. Adding an overlay of Freudian sadism to the mix, as Bharadwaj has done, only muddies the waters.

Her script (originally a screenplay for a Madeleine Stowe/Alan Rickman film she directed) concerns an author of children’s stories (Shannon Parks) who has been hauled out of bed in the middle of the night to be tortured by an alternately seductive and sadistic prison guard (Paul Morella) who means to get her signature on a trumped-up confession. What did she intend, he wonders, when she penned her story about an imaginative little girl whose mother locks her in a closet? Could it be a subversive allegory, designed to foment revolution?

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Actually, how could it not be? How, in fact, could such a children’s story get published anywhere, let alone in a police state? But that’s not where Bharadwaj is heading. The answer she provides to the interrogator’s question is at once more literal and less likely than is usual for the genre. And the script’s lack of finesse is not particularly helped by Jim Petosa’s blunt, electrodes-under-the-skirt staging, which mates physical feints with psychological parries. The performers have both done better work before, and no doubt will again.

Richard Romagnoli, chiefly known hereabouts for bringing Brit bard Howard Barker screaming to life in fiercely poetical productions of No End of Blame, The Castle, A Hard Heart, and Scenes From an Execution, has been nattering to anyone who’ll listen for pretty much the entire decade PTP’s been in town about another angry young London playwright by the name of Snoo Wilson. Appropriately enough, he begins his second decade as a D.C. director by finally mounting a sample of the guy’s work.

No matter what you expect, Wilson will deliver it at some point in Vampire, a peculiar, scattered, rambunctiously difficult work Romagnoli first staged some 17 years ago in New York, and to which he returns with his customary fondness for offbeat stage pictures. Also offbeat offstage pictures, since the first half of the evening takes place not behind Olney’s proscenium arch, but in the auditorium, with the actors cavorting over seatbacks, holding séances and fornicating in the aisles, and generally wreaking havoc.

The play follows a woman named Joy and her descendants (all played by Naomi Jacobson) through at least a century of British history. In Act 1, Joy escapes from her 19th-century home with two sisters and a repressed minister father (John Lescault) to a whorehouse where she specializes in psychic encounters. In Act 2, Joy’s granddaughter becomes an arsonist in the cause of women’s suffrage, and by Act 3, the granddaughter’s granddaughter is a dominatrix who runs a funeral parlor, sometimes with whip in hand, sometimes reciting St. Theresa the Little Flower.

Wilson’s writing bears very little similarity to Barker’s. Anarchic where Barker is tightly focused, linguistically flailing where Barker is poetic, he’s nonetheless an arresting dramatist, throwing so much at patrons so quickly that at some point one either throws up one’s hands and goes with the flow or, like a couple sitting near me, ends each scene muttering, “What the hell was that?”

Those stymied by content—and frankly, I had no real idea where to go once I’d determined that Wilson’s heroes are the folks society labels “the other” and his villains the guardians of the old world order—can still find plenty to occupy them. Take the matter of theatrical style. The first act, as Romagnoli has staged it, is pure melodrama, the second an Oscar Wildean boulevard comedy, and the third a day-after-tomorrow exercise in sexual theatrics with boys in leather humping on a casket.

Considering all that, the performances are sharp and surprisingly coherent. So are Johannes Huseby’s witty costumes, and Daniel MacLean Wagner’s pinpoint, eerily effective lighting (which must have given the designer all sorts of headaches, since actors and audience share both the auditorium and the stage at various points).

That’s not to say that clarity of performance translates into clarity in general. My guess is that most patrons will emerge from Vampire feeling stimulated, provoked, amused, and just a bit befuddled. And that probably gets things about right. On opening night, the author himself was in attendance, and he could be heard laughing frequently. Not often, however, at the same time as the rest of the audience. (As always, all Potomac Theatre Project shows are performed free of charge.)

Nobody’s doing anyone any favors in the embarrassing revue, Poetas de Nuestra Tierra (Poets of Our Lands) at Gala Hispanic Theatre. Ostensibly a celebration of the works of poet/songwriters Chabuca Granda (Peru), Violetta Parra (Chile), and Atahualpa Yupanqui (Argentina), the evening feels unnervingly like a Latino Appreciation Day assembly at some terribly earnest middle school.

Each poet’s work is introduced with biographical material that seems cribbed from an encyclopedia, danced to in desultory fashion by unchoreographed terpsichoreans in ethnic costume, and spoken overemphatically in both English and Spanish by faculty members—er, actors—who seem intent on popularizing life south of the border. Considering the syntax of most onstage utterances, the translation might have been the homework assignment of an intermediate language lab (“I sing to her because she knows how long has been this journey of mine”), while whatever poetic thrust the works may possess in Spanish (“the sorrows are ours, the little cows are not”) gets lost entirely.

In fact, were it not for singers Virma Gamarra, Koko Sosa, and María Isolina, the evening would be insufferable. Gamarra handles the sentimental assignments, trilling Granda’s odes to nature and love sweetly and tremulously. Sosa brings a haunting poignance to Yupanqui’s songs of Tucuman moons (adeptly accompanying himself on guitar). And Isolina hurls Parra’s political harangues to the rafters with her resonant contralto, sounding a bit like Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa, but without that fabulous chanteuse’s gift for appropriate gesture.

A generic platformed stage “designed” by director Ricardo Salim (whose bio notes his degree in architecture), and lighting by Lynn Joslin that tends to plunge performers into darkness as they begin speeches, lend them little support. In fact, the staging is so amateurish it’s hard even to guess what was intended…if, indeed, anything was.CP