CHRISTOPER COLUMBUS, by Michel de Ghelderode; adapted by Matthew N. Coughlin; and THESE CORNFILEDS, by Georges Courteline. Directed by Matthew N. Coughlin; lighting by Jim Caran; sets by David Diggs, Chrissie Hines, April Klapper and John Stafford.
With Tony-Devon Head, Matthew N. Coughlin, Marla Orchen, John Stafford, Virginia Kruger and Chrissie Hines.
The Prism Theater Ensemble is settling into its new home near 18th Street and Columbia Road NW with two curiosities from the French Theater of the Absurd -- Michel de Ghelderode's "Christopher Columbus" and Georges Courteline's "These Cornfields."
Formeryly an auto body shop, the Prism's new headquarters still lacks anything you could call an amenity, but it has something that may be more important: a basement. The basement, what's more, is entered through a centrally located hole in the concrete floor. And director Matthew N. Coughlin had made enterprising use of this situation for "Christopher Columbus," turning the basement into the hold of Columbus' ship. During the later stages of the voyage, the captain has his crew imprisoned there, and they shout mutinous curses at him.
"A difficult moment," Columbus confides to the audience. "My crew is a little disturbed."
From below comes a cry of "Your better believe it, Chris!" followed by a flurry of beer cans.
So this play is not going to boost you final exam score in World History 101a. It lives up to about the same level of historical accuracy as the Offenback/Opera Rara "Christopher Columbus" of the 1979 Summer Opera series of the Kennedy Center.
(While not a musical, De Ghelderode's version -- as adapted by Coughlin -- includes renditions of "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," "Happy Trails" and "Rockabye Baby." When Columbus launches into the last of these tunes, his rebellious crew hollers, "No! No! Not that! It's too sad!")
Coughlin has staged the play with a gusto that just about compensates for the lackluster acting. It does not compensate for the lack of tension at the center of the play itself.
"These Cornfields," the Ionesco-like curtain-raiser of this short bill, is not about farming, but about a battling husband and wife, as seen through the eyes of a guest who keeps landing comically in the middle of their tussles. It lasts about 15 minutes, which is just right.