JONIN' -- (Through Feb. 3 at the Church Street Theater)
High-energy direction and a terrific ensemble cast keep this first production of the African-American-oriented American Theatre Project crackling along. Set in a dorm shared by Omega Kappa Alphas and non-fraternity men on a nameless Washington campus, the play chronicles the disillusionment of one Omega in particular, Steve (Ken Grant). Steve enjoys horsing around with the guys, but he's beginning to think that he wants to do more in life than "get over." His attempts to disengage himself from the more cruel and stupid aspects of frat life -- especially "jonin'," the semi-ritualized insults they exchange about one another's sexuality, girlfriends and mothers -- are resisted, sometimes angrily, by his fellows. Playwright Gerard Brown has surrounded Steve with misfits, including Eddie (Joseph Mills III), who's managed to stay in school for six years without graduating; QT (Berry A. Cufee), the stylish frat jerk; and Duffy (Robin C. Byrd), a veritable monument to insensitivity. The actors are as loose and comfortable together as a jazz combo. As a debut, "Jonin' " promises Washington theatergoers something to look forward to. Lloyd Rose CONTINUING
BUSHCAPADES -- (Saturdays at the Bayou, indefinitely)
Always sensitive to the political Zeitgeist and ready to turn today's scandal into tonight's skit, the capital's resident satirical gang, Gross National Product, goes after Bush, Quayle and other headline hogs. The eight versatile actors, all of them as fast with impressions as with improvs, have settled comfortably into a regular Saturday night live spot at the Bayou that capitalizes on the big club's sound and lights for their customarily clever use of sound bites, voice-overs and other borrowed-from-TV techniques. In fact, as GNP grows ever more polished (and its teeth get sharper), it comes closer to ecoming Washington's answer to Chicago's priceless Second City. Joe Brown
FROM THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA -- (Through Jan. 20 at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre)
Though it covers the familiar historical territory of the civil rights movement, Endesha Ida Mae Holland's take on the period -- and on life in general -- is as fresh as a brand-new story. Phelia, the character who represents Holland in this episodical, autobiographical play, is sharp and sassy, born to be a star. Both hardheaded and poetic, tough but not cynical, Holland/Phelia is up for anything in the grim life her play describes: Her proud, pragmatic, humorous spirit suffuses the play. All of the characters are played by three women: Jacqueline Williams mixes sorrow and rage as the abused 11-year-old Phelia, and is also very funny playing a variety of male roles. Phelia in her sassiest mode is played with proud, gawky charm by Sybil Walker. Cheryl Lynn Bruce has deep reserves of dignity, comedy and plain cantankerousness as Phelia's mother and the cranky Miss Rosebud Dupree. Jonathan Wilson, who directed the original production in Chicago, balances the play's many tones, switching moods on a dime. L.R.
GRAND HOTEL, THE MUSICAL -- (Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House)
Tommy Tune's "Grand Hotel" is a dazzling piece of direction, full of surprise, beauty and daring. But like fellow techno-musicals "Starlight Express" and "Phantom of the Opera," it's a mechanism, a toy. There's something askew when a musical isn't about its story or its music, but about its exquisitely moving parts (including Tony Walton's marvelous set). As for the story, it brings together a stock guest list -- the ballerina tired of life, the dying man who wants to live his last days to the fullest, the pretty, ambitious typist, the nasty businessman, the nobleman-thief -- to a Berlin hotel in 1928. The performers do their jobs well, especially Mark Baker as the dying man and Liliane Montevecchi as the ballerina, but they're basically just cogs in Tune's machine. "Grand Hotel" is all sound and color and whirling motion, an entertainment for the sophisticated child in us. How you respond to it depends on what you demand from the theater, and whether you still enjoy toys. L.R.
ON THE WAY HOME -- (At Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, through Jan. 27)
It's been 10 years since Stephen Wade -- banjo player, teller of tall tales and occasional dancer of jigs -- brought his assorted skills to Arena Stage. As an entertainer, he's a delight -- a foot-stomping, eye-twinkling, listen-to-me-closely kind of guy in work boots and a small-town preacher's tight pin-striped suit. In short, an original. And his childlike wonder at a world that contains such a miracle as the banjo -- not to mention riverboats, back porches and hollows in the mist -- remains unabated. Like a kid just in from the woods, Wade wants nothing more than to share with you the treasures he's found, and he can't imagine your enthusiasm won't match his. David Richards
OTHELLO -- (Through Jan. 27 at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger)
With one stroke of nontraditional casting, director Hal Scott cuts Shakespeare's drama loose from racial melodrama and reestablishes it as pure tragedy. Both Othello (the majestic Avery Brooks) and Iago (the supple, malevolent Andre Braugher) are played by black actors in this production. Iago's racial hostility toward his general and victim, inevitable with a white actor in the role, is removed as a motive, and we get to see his villainy in its sheer malignant egotism. While it's rare to have both a great Othello and a great Iago in the same production, Brooks and Braugher are evenly matched and their scenes together are the kind of theater you dream about without ever believing you'll see. Braugher taunts, lures, goads and soothes Othello into madness. Brooks's essential innocence and undeserved suffering suggest a wounded animal. When he moves his head in bewildered pain, you can almost see the picador's lances sticking in his back. Jordan Baker is a self-possessed, clear-eyed Desdemona, undone, like Othello, by her own decency. L.R.
OUR TOWN -- (Through Sunday at Arena Stage)
As Arena Stage's revival lovingly affirms, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" remains inspiring, exasperating, challenging and heart-rending. Robert Prosky has returned to Arena after a 10-year hiatus to play the Stage Manager, who introduces us to the village of Grover's Corners, N.H. Although friendly and accessible, he lacks the vigor needed for theatrical communication. But in the many small moments of truth upon which this play relies, the production is sound as a church bell, happily marrying the demand for pantomimed props with skilled stagecraft. Other actors (in a multiracial cast) offer some lovely performances, including Jarlath Conroy as the lonely, drunken choirmaster; Christina Moore and David Aaron Baker as the young couple Emily and George; and Tana Hicken as Emily's mother, worrying about her daughter's future. The play's power today lies in its connections to our common cultural memories and to our daily trials and sadnesses. "We all know that something is eternal," says the Stage Manager, ". . . and that something has to do with human beings." Maybe that something is "Our Town." M.R.
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW -- (Through Jan. 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre)
Anyone who goes to this little shop of hormonal horror should check his adulthood at the door. This musical became the cult movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," patronized to this day by people who like to go to movies at midnight and yell at the screen. The audience here is expected, even encouraged, to throw things onstage at appropriate moments and to yell rude, even lewd, comments at the actors. The catch is you can use only the theater's pre-approved prop kit, which you can buy for $3 -- a pretty good deal, but it still feels like someone's trying to control your spontaneity. Nonetheless, there's a lot of ridiculous amusement to be had here, if you can handle priapic humor and pan-sexual horseplay. The entire cast is wonderfully loony, the set appropriately tacky and the costumes a tour de force. The music is lively and heavily influenced by early rock 'n' roll, which is fine with me. Did I forget the plot? Oops. You'll just have to see for yourself. M.R.
SHEAR MADNESS -- (At the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, indefinitely)
This strange hybrid is part participatory theater, part whodunit, part farce and all of it as broad as the proverbial barn door. Midway through the first act, a murder is committed in a unisex hair salon and the audience is invited to join the investigation -- grilling the suspects and then voting for the guilty party. For the Kennedy Center run, the action has been set in Georgetown, and the script has been laced with local references. It doesn't take great powers of deduction to figure out that this enterprise is aiming low. The humor is strained, and the actors are pushing so hard you fear they'll burst a blood vessel. What, you can only wonder, is a play like this doing at the Kennedy Center? D.R.
A TUNA CHRISTMAS -- (Through Jan. 20 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater)
In a season stuffed with sugarplums, it's nice to encounter a sourball. A sequel to an earlier show with author-actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, "A Tuna Christmas" takes a raucous, irreverent attitude toward the sacred season. The pair play all the roles, 12 characters each, female and male, young and old, crazy and not-quite-as-crazy, all from Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas. The play doesn't exactly have a plot. The excuse for the shenanigans that take place is the annual Tuna Christmas Yard Display Contest, which the rich and unpleasant Vera Carp has won for 14 straight years. Will she win again? It is to Sears and Williams's credit that they often bring real emotion into what could be just a series of funny turns. By celebrating the worst of Christmas so zestfully, the play earns the right to its poignant, shyly happy ending. Lloyd Rose
UNDER A MANTLE OF STARS -- (Through Feb. 3 at the Grace Episcopal Church)
One of life's guilty pleasures is soap opera and an outrageous parody of it by the late Manuel Puig ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") is enjoying its American premiere. Discussing their latest domestic crises, Master (Carroll Carlson) and Mistress (Nancy Robinette) sit in their living room eagerly awaiting their new maid (because "without servants, there is no time for tragedy") and wondering about the whereabouts of Daughter (Kate Malin), who has just been dumped by her boyfriend and whose sanity and safety are in question. Before long a car door slams, the French doors open and in sweep an alluring couple in '20s-style evening clothes. What ensues is a constantly shifting, increasingly absurd roundelay of seductions, confessions, heinous crimes and mistaken identities. Like determined little gerbils racing 'round treadmills, Puig's characters never let up on their fantasies. And because the actors capture that freneticism so charmingly, we never want to let them go. Pamela Sommers