Backstage: Death and mayhem in ‘Little Murders’

“Little Murders,” a satire by Jules Feiffer set in an alternate-reality New York City, takes place in the home of the dysfunctional Newquist family. Horrific violence rages just outside their door. Gunshots can be heard constantly; the terror-trifecta of mugging, mayhem and murder threatens to engulf the Newquists’ barely stable existence.

So, just a lighthearted afternoon at the theater. Bring your kids!

  • ( Johannes Markus / ) - From left, Robin Covington, Bill Gordon and James Finley in \
  • ( Clinton Brandhagen / ) - Paul Reisman, Toby Mulford, Eva Wilhelm, and Drew Kopas in the Faction of Fools production of \
  • ( Dented Lens Photography / ) - Nick Dillenburg in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of \

( Johannes Markus / ) - From left, Robin Covington, Bill Gordon and James Finley in \"Little Murders\" at American Century Theater.

Ellen Dempsey, directing her seventh show with American Century Theater, described the tone of the play as “much more towards the ‘Heathers’ side” (citing, for the sadly uninitiated, a hilarious movie in which teenagers kill one another). “The violence comes and it’s shocking, but you’re in this world that isn’t completely real, so it’s hard to take it tragically. . . . It’s a black comedy. Some people are going to laugh and some aren’t.”

“It’s an exaggerated world where, literally, you cannot go outside on the streets of New York without being mugged or shot at or stabbed or beat up,” said Emily Morrison, who plays Marjorie Newquist, family matriarch. “It’s just the way of everyday life, and it’s getting worse.”

The play is set in the interior of the family’s apartment, and the danger outside creeps through the crevices via sound effects.

What’s most stunning to Dempsey about the play, which was written more than 40 years ago, is its prescience. “It’s a good comment on the times we’re living in: There’s violence around. It reminds me of . . . when the D.C. sniper was out, the things that people would do . . . because there was random violence out there.”

Morrison agreed. “There’s a part in the play where the father . . . is talking about what we need to protect us. We need cameras in every elevator and doorway, in every shop. From 1967, it’s Big Brother looking forward. Except for lobotomies given to people who don’t make more than $10,000 a year, most of what [he predicts] has happened to us.”

Friday to Feb. 11, Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, 703-998-4555,
americancentury.org
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Crazy, stupid love

Director P.J. Paparelli is amplifying the teen angst factor in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (opening Tuesday), a show he cites as “a version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that isn’t a tragedy.”

“Two Gentlemen” “is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays,” Paparelli said. “And it definitely deals with . . . the unbridled passion of teenagers, the crazy, impulsive and dangerous decisions they make, especially when adults aren’t around to help guide things.”

The previous two shows Paparelli did in the District, in 2005, were similarly themed: “Romeo and Juliet,” a cautionary tale for love-crazy adolescents everywhere, and “Columbinus,” a documentary play inspired by the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

“When you look at [‘Two Gentlemen’] on the page, of course, it seems crazy, the things they do to each other,” he said. “But when you think about teenage behavior . . . they haven’t quite formed the understanding of the consequences of their actions.” The sorts of things that happen in “Two Gentlemen” — a girl coming between two lifelong friends, a relationship imploding over a misunderstanding — are things “that happen every day in high school.”

“What we’ve done is try to look at the actual given circumstances of kids today . . . and how this behavior [in the play] is grounded in real situations.”

The most difficult scene to navigate, Proteus’s attempted rape (or committed rape, depending on one’s interpretation) of Sylvia, is a work in progress. “We’ve looked at it many, many ways,” said Paparelli. “I think it’s more about the pain that has been inflicted on [Proteus] by this unrequited love, and he wants to inflict it on [her].

“Shakespeare is about pushing somebody to that point: How can you forgive somebody after they’ve done something really terrible? . . . It’s a very big moment, what happens. The next two, three minutes of stage time, I think the audience is going to be quite shocked.”

Tuesday to March 4, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, ­202-547-1122,
shakespeare­theatre.org
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Fight club

In Faction of Fools’ “Romeo and Juliet,” opening Thursday, Eva Wilhelm plays four characters and, in an envy-inspiring twist, gets two sword fights.

“I’m almost jealous of me for having two sword fights!” she said. “As a woman, there are a lot of us who are certified in stage combat. I’m certified in seven weapons. . . . And most of the time, we [women] maybe get to do a slap. . . . It’s just so refreshing to put all of that training to use.”

The production, she said, is big on action. “I think so many people have a misguided idea of Shakespeare as a very static, very — [at this she adopted a mock-dramatic, booming voice] ‘We stand around and we declare poetry to each other and walk dramatically!’ What surprised me the most is . . . how much the story is helped by all of this action. It’s really astonishing.”

Five actors share all the parts in Faction’s production, switching masks and costumes to distinguish among roles, and the show comes in at a 70 -minute clip. Matt Wilson, the director, has been envisioning the project for about 10 years.

Keeping in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, the characters will wear half-masks, covering the top of the face but leaving the mouth free to speak.

In addition to highlighting the action, Faction’s show brings out some unexpected humor. For instance, when Juliet’s family thinks she’s dead, “it’s hilarious!” insisted Wilhelm. “It’s so overdone. . . . If you really read through it, it’s got all these, ‘O woe! O lamentable day!’ It’s just maniacal in a way.” The language, she explained, crosses over from drama to melodrama to borderline ridiculous, suggesting Shakespeare’s intent was to get a laugh from the audience, who, knowing Juliet is still alive, would be in on the joke.

“I knew the text was funny,” Wilson said. “I didn’t realize how funny it was.”

Thursday to Feb. 4, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW, factionoffools.org.

 
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