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Surf Nazis cross swords with tinhorn dictators in Arlington this month, while three sheltered sisters blithely keep company with spirits over in the District, as two of the area’s smarter small theater companies tackle two very different plays.
The Actors’ Theatre of Washington aims to loosen literary strictures on women in Off the Ice, an agreeably intelligent, frequently funny fantasy by Barbara Field. The Minnesota-based playwright looks in on Little Women’s March sisters after the end of the Civil War to find them still stuck in their familiar ruts: Headstrong tomboy Jo (Brook Butterworth) chafes under the cultural constraints imposed on her gender, reckless Amy (Mary Melyssa Hall) flits from one worldly diversion to the next, and competent, conformist Meg (Rena Cherry Brown) frets endlessly over the proprieties. Dear, innocent Beth (Katie Barrett) is dead, of course, but she’s very much a presence in the old March house, where the others have gathered for their monthly girls’ night out—a proper Victorian affair with tableaux vivants and tea cakes, unusual only in that the hostess is a prepubescent phantom.
With one such supernatural element established, it’s only logical that others will follow, so when the sisters take up Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all that’s left to do is wonder which of that novel’s characters will show up at their door. It turns out to be the slave Eliza (Gabrielle Goyette), who apparently hasn’t heard about the surrender at Appomattox, and her baby, who sadly has perished from the cold. Beth, understandably, takes an immediate shine to the infant (“I’ve such a sweet hatbox up in the attic; it’ll fit you perfectly”), but the others are much more interested in Eliza—and the thin veneer of their “educated” respectability doesn’t long survive the impact of her arrival. Before the poor creature has regained consciousness, Jo concocts a grandiose scheme for her improvement, encompassing everything from McGuffey’s Reader through Rousseau, with nary a thought for the breathtaking condescension of such a design. Meg, excited at the prospect of meeting her “first Negro,” talks baby-talk to Eliza when she does come around, while Amy, armed with a sketchbook, wonders aloud at the “perfect African mask” of her face. When she tries to grieve over her lost child, they brush aside her lamentations with easy assurances about his “Christian burial,” eager to get back to their plans for her.
This early breakdown of civility is a mere fraction of what Field has in store for these characters, though; before she’s done, Eliza, who’s got far more common sense than all four of the others together, exploits all of them for her own ends—and in so doing teaches them the skill they’ll need to emancipate themselves from their own individual circumstances and from centuries of social and literary convention. The shibboleth Field takes aim at (fictional archetypes of domineering husbands, dutifully submissive wives, wily females, women who put aside their own goals to further their spouses’, etc.) are easy targets for anyone with a grain of feminist sensibility, and the playwright comes rather overarmed to the fray, having culled a veritable arsenal of clever literary references from authors as different as Austen, Thackeray, and Alcott herself.
Field’s sense of humor, however, which ranges from playfully arch to painfully lowbrow, makes you want to overlook the way she’s littered the script with dozens of throwaway lines, pointless asides, and little narrative diversions that don’t go anywhere. And the Actors’ Theatre production is stylishly designed and directed, with a cast that, though some members occasionally seem a little tightly wound, is generally pretty engaging.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Mallan
At Clark Street Playhouse
through March 12
The Washington Shakespeare Company brings a similarly modern mind-set to another old story in its off-night production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is actually about one reasonably upstanding guy, Valentine (Daniel Luna), and his best buddy, Proteus (John C. Hansen), who turns out to be a fair-weather friend and anything but a gentleman.
Hansen acquits himself creditably, though he occasionally opts for heroic declamation when focused intensity would seem a better choice. It’s Luna’s performance that’s the real revelation; he throws himself confidently into the physical busy-ness his character has been assigned, milking his lines for all their broad humor. Better yet, he seems to get the humor in the text, which is more than you can say for many who attempt Shakespeare at his age. This assured young actor is a far cry from the timorous supporting player I first saw in Freedom Stage’s unfortunate 1993 production of The Sum of Us.
Director Tom Mallan scores a coup, too, by setting the story in a 20th-century banana republic and backing it with a giddy cha-cha score. Slapstick abounds, low humor seems the only point of the exercise, and the whole thing’s howlingly funny—more successful than it has any right to be. Milan’s duke (Gary Telles) becomes a cartoon amalgam of every military despot you can think of, and his favorite, Thurio (Eric Lucas), a handsome Texan with an empty swagger and an empty head to match. The duke’s daughter, fair Silvia (Jennifer Gerdts, who bites right down on her role and chews gleefully for all it’s worth), is a beehived, go-go-booted cover girl with an attitude and a big wad of bubble gum. Silvia also has a principled streak, which manifests itself when Proteus attempts to woo her. Not that she doesn’t think he’s attractive; that’s been apparent from the moment they met in a hilarious, intricately choreographed pas de deux. But she has learned in the meantime that he’s willing to betray not only Valentine (whom Silvia does love) but his own betrothed as well to get into her pants.
Things get increasingly hairy as the story advances; Proteus arranges to have Valentine exiled from Milan and conspires to gain access to Silvia’s bedchamber. He even unknowingly employs his slighted love, Julia (Michelle Powers), who has come to Milan disguised as a boy, in his scheme, but Silvia steadfastly rejects him. When she runs off one night, intent on finding the banished Valentine (who in the meantime has become leader of a band of misfit outlaws including a valley-boy surfer and a tubby fascist), Proteus follows her, and there’s a final showdown in the woods. The wrap-up is one of those hurried, unsatisfying things that make for what Shakespeare scholars call a “problem play,” but Mallan takes a daring step toward tidying it up by sending Proteus to an unpleasant, unscripted end while the rest of the crew congas off into the sunset.
Julia’s stubborn virtue seems a little odd in a world where the people are generally as uninhibited as their dogs (aptly named Bill Bassett plays the constantly horny Crab, which isn’t usually a role taken by a human actor). That’s the only real weakness here, though—and the production’s other pleasures, including a pair of delightful performances by Allan Jirikowic and Andy Rapoport as Launce and Speed, collectively make for a high old time.CP