Mini Reviews Openings THE CHERRY ORCHARD -- (At Round House Theatre through Dec. 1)

Anton Chekhov knew you didn't always have to do something to do something, and based on the Round House Theatre's just-opened production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," director Nick Olcott clearly understands what that means. The show has such a nuanced feel for the play's period, late-19th-century Russia, that you might find yourself wondering whether Olcott somehow went back in time and spent a couple of evenings with the playwright and his pals. Since its premiere nearly a century ago in Moscow, "The Cherry Orchard" has often mystified audiences with its seemingly static portrait of members of a landed gentry family doing nothing as they watch a cold new world close in on them. Too often productions have oversimplified Lyubov Ranevskaya (Kathryn Kelley) and her brother Leonid (Rick Foucheux) as symbols of some inner blight because of their "inability" to save from the chop their beloved cherry orchard and the gloriously privileged past it represents. In Olcott's extraordinarily sensitive and sensible staging, Lyubov and Leonid willingly go headlong to an unthinkable fate because avoiding it would involve something even more unthinkable: denying who they are. Yes, they're self-absorbed and something inside is missing, but by emphasizing their inaction as a conscious choice, Olcott elicits from them and the play a rare, awesome integrity -- the very kind, in fact, that Chekhov was writing about.

-- William Triplett

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN -- (By the Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Nov. 24)

In the beginning was the Word, and it was action-packed. Forget your Sunday School Jesus and his 12 dainty disciples. "The Gospel of John," at the H Street Playhouse, is a sweaty, gritty tale of a miracle-working idealist who runs afoul of the law. Passion, longing, envy, greed, ambition, intrigue and betrayal -- it's all here and it is riveting. Director Scott Cowart and actor Brad Sherrill reimagine the fourth gospel as a one-man play in which a storyteller -- John -- relates the adventures of Jesus to a crowd of unbelievers -- the audience. In telling the story, "John" inhabits dozens of other characters, from the skeptical Samaritan woman at the well to the genial carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus's humble origins elicit snickers from one of his first disciples: "Nazareth!" snorts the clueless Nathanael. "Can anything good come from there?" Quite a bit as it turns out. Sherrill's Jesus is an affable, plain-spoken fellow whose message of tolerance and hope is as much political as spiritual. But the affection he generates among his followers displeases the authorities. It's not just the beautiful simplicity of Cowart's direction or the intensity of Sherrill's performance that does it; it's also the simple stroke of genius in performing the entire gospel, unadapted, as drama. Suddenly you understand: It always was a drama. Seeing it presented that way, you begin to appreciate its power.

-- Dolores Whiskeyman

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Dec. 29)

August Wilson's scorching portrait of black musicians in the 1920s and the barriers to self-expression imposed on them by the white establishment, laced with the smoky songs of the period as well as an assortment of roles that equitably apportion the bravura moments, is a heart-rending assault on the senses. "Ma Rainey" is a fictionalized account of a day in a recording studio in 1927 with the famous blues singer of that name, here embodied by Tina Fabrique as a paranoid, pinched-face malcontent who sees conspiracies to undermine her everywhere. A megastar with black audiences, she has been coaxed to Chicago by her manager, Irvin (Hugh Nees), to cut a record with a white executive, Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James), who looks at her with cold eyes: She's a meal ticket and nothing more. If their tug of war gives the play its narrative drive, it is the interplay among the four members of her band that provides the texture. Holed up in a rehearsal room, waiting for Ma to show up for the session, Cutler (Hugh Staples), Toledo (Frederick Strother), Levee (Gavin Lawrence) and Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) tune up and lay out the evening's themes. The distinct experiences and viewpoints they represent can at times give the play an overly schematic feel, but the characters are full-blooded creations nonetheless. By the time of the explosive conclusion, you're fully apprised of the myriad ways that the profound disappointment of the oppressed can be channeled, whether it's in music, or poetry, or blood.

-- Peter MarksMUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 5)

This breezy "Much Ado" plays out very much like the placid drawing-room comedies of the period in which director Mark Lamos has set his production: 1920s England. The play's darker elements are obscured. The plot, too, to discredit a noble family and ruin the reputation of Beatrice's cousin, a blameless young bride-to-be, is treated here more as mischief than machinations with potentially lethal consequences. Perhaps this is a way to go with "Much Ado." Aside from the story's central romantic clash of wills between Beatrice (Karen Ziemba) and Benedick (Dan Snook), the confirmed bachelor with whom she wages her war of words, the play is not particularly compelling. The heavy burden on the two leads is to advance the cause of love with each "skirmish of wit," and that requires the audience to believe fully that these larger-than-life combatants are quite simply made for each other. The illusion is not sustained all that vibrantly in this "Much Ado." The gentrified setting, a world where manners and appearances count, also works well for "Much Ado"; this is after all a play about deception, and more to the point, self-deception, about the folly of putting more faith in the lies one is apt to be told than in following the unvarnished truth of the heart. "Much Ado" is an urgent piece of theater only if Shakespeare's brainy, sharp-elbowed lovers reign supreme, like a pair of nonpareil headliners. The less towering Beatrice and Benedick conjured here may make a good pair, but not the kind that sends you out of the theater laughing into the night.

-- P.M.

Continuing ALL THE WORLD -- (By the Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage's Shaw neighborhood space through Dec. 1)

Never trust an actor -- and that goes double in affairs of the heart. All those overwrought scenes! The despairing moans, the withering stares, the solicitous sighs: Are they being effected for you, or posterity? This seed of a life-lesson is planted again and again in "All the World," a trio of one-acts by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar that is being presented by Washington Stage Guild, a company with a special fondness for his work. One of Molnar's dramatic fortes was as a confectioner, a spinner of frothy comedies, of which these playlets are prime examples. "A Prologue to 'King Lear' " finds a hammy Lothario in a backstage imbroglio with an irate husband; "Still Life" chronicles, in Cowardesque fashion, the romantic badinage of a pampered actress and the leading man she keeps on a short leash; "The Witch" is a dressing room cat-and-mouse game between a meek hausfrau and the carnivorous starlet who bewitches her husband. Among the performers, Conrad Feininger is especially good as a skirt-chasing Lear with the baritone of an Edmund Kean and the ethics of a Watergate burglar; Steven Carpenter finds the shallowness beneath the surface of a vain and needy stage veteran; and Cody Lindquist adds just the right dose of vinegar to the role of a maid who really can't be bothered with housework.

-- P.M.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN -- (By Theater J at the Goldman Theater at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center through Dec. 1)

At the start of this revival of "Death and the Maiden," the Schubert string quartet by that title begins to play, and the face of a middle-aged woman appears upstage, framed by a spotlight. It's far from apparent at first the dreadful role Schubert's composition has played in the life of this woman, that the music is a trigger for memories so scalding that when asked to find words to describe them, she will spit them out in hysterical spurts. As played by the excellent Paula Gruskiewicz, the woman lives on the precipice of distress; you're not quite sure at any moment whether she might begin unloading the dishwasher or tearing out her hair. Gruskiewicz's work is emblematic of the keen psychological realism of this new production of Ariel Dorfman's 1990 drama, revived here under the skillful direction of John Vreeke. She and the two actors who share the stage with her, Mitchell Hebert and John Lescault, offer intriguingly ambiguous portraits of three people forced to confront the morally complex, wrenching ramifications of state-sponsored torture. The setup for the evening itself strains credulity: Gruskiewicz's Paulina Escobar is at home with her lawyer husband Gerardo (Lescault) when a cultured stranger (Hebert) appears at the door. The voice is all too familiar to Paulina; she soon is convinced that this is the man who had tortured and raped her during her illegal detention 15 years earlier. Paulina does not pick up the phone, though. No, she picks up a gun, pistol-whips the stranger into unconsciousness and straps him to a chair in her living room, where she plans to force a confession out of him. Paulina's behavior begs the sorts of questions philosophers and ethicists like to chew over in symposia: to secure justice, does a victim have the right to adopt the tactics of her tormentors? The evening could easily deteriorate into an exercise in fist-pounding excess. But Vreeke and his acting trio follow an alternate route, choosing to view "Death and the Maiden" not so much as a thriller or a morality play than as a human drama about the psychic toll that trauma imposes.

-- P.M.FAITH HEALER -- (At Rep Stage through Nov. 24)

Dark, destructive love -- between an Irish shaman and his woman on one level, between an artist and his art on another -- is the life force raging below the hauntingly placid surface of "Faith Healer," Brian Friel's often revived 1979 play currently receiving a knockout production at Rep Stage. Superbly cast and intelligently directed, the show immediately strikes the script's mother lode -- a fat vein of some of the human heart's more terrifying and opaque paradoxes. Frank (Nigel Reed), who may or may not be a real faith healer, and Grace (Julie-Ann Elliott), his mistress and possibly his wife (it's never clear which), and Teddy (Bruce Nelson), Frank's agent-manager, individually recount the events of "Faith Healer," which have all taken place long ago. In "Faith Healer," though, two of the characters are ghosts, and their accounts often differ, usually on some of the more telling, painful details. A potentially depressing tale succeeds largely because Kasi Campbell directs with an eye toward eliciting the characters' individual losses and pain, not whatever bitterness they may still harbor for each other. Ultimately you're left with the difficult and poignant feeling that, however sick and even perverted it was, and despite Frank's possessing a "killer instinct" to serve his talent, as Teddy tells us, the love between Frank and Grace was real and unconditional.

-- W.T.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE -- By the Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse through Sunday)

Tennessee Williams's first major play, which has long since entered the pantheon of plays we've all seen possibly too many times, still has the power to move you. Deeply. That is, assuming (1) a production realizes it isn't Tom, the look-at-me-and-my-awful-memories narrator, who is the epicenter of this sad tale, but Amanda, his toxically self-absorbed mother, and (2) you have an actress who can make the character something more than that. As played by Linda High in this intelligent and sensitive production, Amanda earns not only your serious attention, but also your respect and sympathy. Ultimately, with the help of director Brian Hemmingsen, Amanda is a monster you feel sorry for, a suffocating matriarch as pathetic as she is deadly. Revolutionary when it debuted in 1944 because of its lyrical dialogue and expressionistic staging, Williams's memory play, as he called it, also captivated audiences with a nakedly autobiographical story. Tom appears to us in the present, a haunted poet-artist recalling the last months he lived with his mother and his older sister, Laura, "a cripple" who collects glass animals. Like Williams's own mother, Amanda is an aging, abandoned wife who lives on memories of her glorious Old South youth -- filled with boundless promise and at least 17 gentlemen callers, as she constantly reminds everyone. Amanda emerges as the fully fleshed embodiment of a theme Williams would explore in detail in later plays -- the past as a present from which you're always trying to escape.

-- W.T.HOST AND GUEST -- (By Synetic Theater at Church Street Theater through Dec. 1)

Is that the beating of a drum you hear, or the sound of your own heart pounding? Where this ravishing show is concerned, it could be either -- or both. Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, manage to unspool the threads of an epic yarn, a story of bravery and bloodletting in the Caucasus that has all the austere grace of an ancient cave drawing. "Host and Guest" is about the violation of an all-powerful taboo -- giving comfort to the enemy. In the Caucasus Mountains, Joqola, played by Paata Tsikurishvili, befriends another hunter, Zviadauri (Irakli Kavsadze), while both are pursuing a deer. The men forge a bond in a moment of unusual decency: Each has decided not to kill the other. When Joqola invites the stranger to his home, the village has a nervous breakdown: Doesn't he know Zviadauri is from the tribe with which Joqola's tribe has been locked in a dance to the death? Slaughter inevitably leads to more slaughter, a bloodbath that eventually overwhelms Joqola, his new friend and countless others on both sides.

-- P.M.KIKI & HERB IN PARDON OUR APPEARANCE -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. through Sunday)

How tasteless is "Kiki & Herb in Pardon Our Appearance"? Well, at one point one character says she's happy to see young faces in the audience because "between AIDS and Alzheimer's we don't have a fan left over 40." It's just one of many moments when you may not know whether to laugh or gag at this look at a boozed-out, broken-down pair of lounge lizards and the very big garbage can that is their life. Odds are you'll laugh, though -- raucously, unavoidably and just about incessantly. Why? Because "Kiki & Herb" is a wickedly sly piece of work, as recognizably human as it is garishly outre -- a hilarious tour de trash that has at its center a very normal, wounded heart. Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman have spent the last five years performing respectively as Kiki and Herb, two aging entertainers who seem to have always been so bad they can't even claim has-been status. Anyone easily offended by, say, the dove of peace suffering a brain tumor or the idea that being gay, Jewish and retarded wasn't always so "trendy," as Kiki tells us, will not be amused. But anyone who finds it grimly funny that American pop culture can debase just about anything for a profit may not be able to keep his sides from splitting.

-- W.T.LATE NITE CATECHISM -- (At the West End Theatre through Nov. 24)

This comedy has a nifty gimmick: The audience is at an adult education class, and the subject is Catholic doctrine. Technically, this play by Chicagoans Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan is a solo show, but, in fact, the cast swells to nearly a dozen by the end of the evening. Who are these extra characters? Audience members -- students, that is -- whom the eagle-eyed Sister in charge singles out for their behavior, good and bad. The steady give-and-take with the crowd at Alexandria's West End Theatre (normally the West End Dinner Theatre, but rented to Phoenix Productions for this no-dinner show) makes the well-traveled "Late Nite Catechism" a real performer's piece. Jodi Capeless keeps the audience in high spirits without ever losing control of her class.

-- Nelson Pressley

PRIVATES ON PARADE -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)

The sun is setting on the British Empire, and who better to bid it a withering adieu than Floyd King? Er, make that Noel Coward. No wait, that is King up there, and he is in top form, delivering the Cowardesque ditty that sets in motion the second act of "Privates on Parade," Peter Nichols's tuneful satire of England's waning days as a colonial power. The 1977 "play with songs," getting jaunty and thoroughly sophisticated handling here, is an actors' paradise: Each of the nine major roles is a beaut, and director Joy Zinoman has to her credit filled them with actors who prowl this precinct as confidently as panthers. The cast skillfully transforms the Studio stage, conjuring postwar Malaya of 1948 and the military installations where a song-and-dance troupe is dispatched to buoy the beleaguered British cause. This ragtag outfit, based on Nichols's own experiences in such a unit, is second-rate English music hall on tour, the USO with Benny Hill instead of Bob Hope. King plays the juiciest role in "Privates," that of Terri Dennis, a swishy theater buff and unlikely army captain. King is a paragon of drollery, infusing the proceedings with a cocktail hour urbanity.

-- P.M.

SHEAR MADNESS -- (At the Kennedy Center Theater Lab indefinitely)

This interactive murder mystery, set in a Georgetown beauty parlor, is not so much a whodunit as a howtheydunit. How has a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes found success in the nation's capital for 15 interminable years? Congressional careers tumble, administrations founder, even empires fall. With the passing in January of New York's 42-year-old "The Fantasticks," the Kennedy Center's "Shear Madness" is now the third-longest-running play in the country, surpassed only by its sister production in Boston, 22 years old and going strong and the soon-to-close "Les Miserables" on Broadway. I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. It's all low-rent Agatha Christie. A murder has been committed in the apartment above the Shear Madness unisex salon of Tony Whitcomb (Bob Lohrmann). Suddenly the lights go up, and the detectives investigating the case (Aaron Shields and Keith Kupferer) announce to the audience that it's our job to help solve the crime. Why would one of the world's premier showcases for theater tie up one of its stages for a decade and a half with any play, let alone one so inconsequential?

-- P.M.

THREE SISTAHS -- (At MetroStage through Dec. 1)

The sisters in Thomas W. Jones II and William Hubbard's mushy "Three Sistahs" have big problems -- and even bigger voices with which to sing about them. Olive, the oldest, craves a baby. Marsha, the middle one, could use a good marriage counselor. Irene, the youngest, wants an escape from the suffocating ennui of her dead-end job. Trapped in the cul-de-sacs of their unhappiness, they gather at the Washington home of their late parents one evening in the autumn of 1969 after the funeral of their brother who has been killed in Vietnam. Far into the night they reminisce and fight and grieve and pout and (with the help of a backup band) pour out their aching hearts to one another. Olive (Bernardine Mitchell), Marsha (Crystal Fox) and Irene (Desire DuBose) fill the air with rhythm, blues and recrimination. Jones gives the women a lot of sitcom shtick. What he does not provide until long into the evening is an understanding of why the relationships among these three women are important, what makes this meeting so essential. The three actresses have a very tough task, adding flesh to characters who often seem mere collections of familiar attributes. All are in excellent voice, especially the imposing Mitchell, whose presence can be felt in every swivel of the hip and arching of the eyebrow. Then again, you get the feeling that she might make the reading of a cookbook sound momentous.

-- P.M.