A theater review in last Saturday's Style section reported incorrect closing dates for the Washington Stage Guild's production. "Herbert III" and "Mixed Babies" run through Dec. 16. "Shadowing the Conqueror" runs through Dec. 14. (Published 12/6/90)
What do a couple of fretting parents, Alexander the Great and a quintet of 16-year-old girls have in common? Sitting through "Herbert III," "Shadowing the Conqueror" and "Mixed Babies" -- the trio of very different plays in repertoire at the Washington Stage Guild -- one wonders why these works are lumped together. Certainly they provide double-cast actors Jewell Robinson and Bill Grimmette the opportunity to show off their formidable range -- she as the worried mom of "Herbert" and a street-smart teen in "Babies"; he as the beleaguered dad of "Herbert" and the fearsome Alexander in "Conqueror." And all are fairly small-scale vehicles as far as sets, costumes and casts are concerned, just the ticket for a small company with limited resources. Yet slowly, more pressing connections -- seams of trust, independence and acceptance -- among the three come to light.
On the surface, Ted Shine's "Herbert III" and Oni Faida Lampley's "Mixed Babies" -- two one-acters presented on a single bill -- spring from similar sources. Both take place during the mid-'70s in middle-class Afro-American households. Both make us laugh out loud, but whereas "Herbert" elicits the automatic chuckles of any mediocre sitcom, "Babies" causes us to cackle for far more unexpected reasons. Even with the actors' and director Derek Jones's equally astute contribution to both, Shine's play amuses while Lampley's elates.
"Herbert" unfolds in the bedroom of Margarette and Herbert Jr., a hard-working Dallas couple waiting for their teenage son to come home. When we first meet the pair, he's snoring, but she's wide awake, as wound up as the bedside clock she keeps checking. Despite her husband's reassurances that the boy has gone bowling, she phones the police, the hospital, the morgue, even her own nagging mother in search of the lad. Between calls, she and hubby spar, reminisce about the good times and the bad, snuggle and use the facilities (replete with sound effects a` la "All in the Family"). Though Robinson frets to perfection, and Grimmette moves and sounds just as a lumbering, put-upon man should, the script lets them down.
With "Babies," the stage is transformed into a basement rec room littered with record albums, teddy bears, board games and naugahyde ottomans, where five teenage girls are gathered for what seems like their umpteenth slumber party. As they put on makeup, style each other's hair and lip-sync to Jackson 5 songs, we get to know Andee (Becky Woodley), a sorority girl in the making; gawky, endearing Shalanda (Donise Stevens); streetwise Dena (Robinson); garrulous Thomasina (Gwendolyn Briley-Strand), who can't stop talking -- in ersatz Spanish -- about her Puerto Rican heritage; and Reva Mae (Namu Lwanga), the ultra-sensitive creature whose quest for her African roots becomes the source of much derision and eventually, wonder. The stellar cast -- all of them way past their teens -- seem to be having as much fun with these roles as we are watching them.
Lampley, who was recently awarded grants from both the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, has created a gallery of thoroughly believable, lovable young women careening between total innocence and smug sophistication. Each dig, each confession adds to our knowledge of these chums. And when Reva Mae finally convinces Dena and Shalanda to take part in a rite of passage she's concocted, we're touched by the goofiness and splendor of it all.
So where does "Shadowing the Conqueror" fit in? Far more abstract than either "Herbert" or "Babies," Peter Jukes's depiction of the travels of Alexander the Great (Grimmette) and a contemporary photographer named Mary Ellis (Laura Giannarelli) -- based very loosely on the relationship between Alexander and Pyrrho of Elis, a painter who accompanied the warrior on his expedition to the Orient -- is most of all a lofty debate between two intensely committed, opposing forces. At the start, he is only alive when "in the field"; she is obsessed with capturing images, especially of this complex megalomaniac. "Only conflict can convince us that we're real," Alexander declares. And so they embark on a globe-trotting journey that ends with Alexander's demise and Ellis's gradual metamorphosis into a much less driven and far more accepting person.
Jukes's mixing of history and fiction is certainly skillful, and he has a powerful command of language. At this point, however, "Conqueror" is more a play to be read than experienced. It is static and deadly serious, and there is only so much a director can do with the script; John MacDonald has his actors moving around, over and under, and constantly pushing the bleacherlike set, but the effect is one of wasted motion. It doesn't help matters that, as played by Giannarelli, Ellis comes across as stagy, obnoxious and physically uncomfortable; Grimmette's absolutely commanding and multilayered portrayal of Alexander tips the balance too far in his favor. In the end, it is Ken Cobb's gorgeous photographic backdrops of faces, animals and places that serve to establish Ellis as a force as visionary as her rival.
Herbert III, by Ted Shine. Playing with Mixed Babies, by Oni Faida Lampley. Directed by Derek Jones. Sets and lighting by Carl F. Gudenius. Costumes by Lynn Steinmetz. Sound by Alan Wittrup. With Bill Grimmette, Jewell Robinson, Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, Namu Lwanga, Donise Stevens, Becky Woodley. Through Nov. 16.
Shadowing the Conqueror, by Peter Jukes. Directed by John MacDonald. Sets and lighting by Carl F. Gudenius. Costumes by Lynn Steinmetz. Sound by Alan Wittrup. Photography by Ken Cobb. With Laura Giannarelli, Bill Grimmette. Through Nov. 14 at the Washington Stage Guild, Carroll Hall, 924 G St. NW.