Mini Reviews

Openings

FOLLIES {ndash} (At Signature Theatre Through June 1)

"Follies" is a gorgeous 1971 pastiche that many lovers of Stephen Sondheim's work believe is his greatest. It is also perhaps the most challenging to stage. Set at a reunion of ex-Follies girls, the musical complexly weaves the story of two disintegrating marriages into an evening of songs that both recall the past glories of the Ziegfeld era and reflect on the current miseries of its faded stars.

"Follies" is in short a bear, a fragile, beautiful one. Some enterprising directors have tried to tame it since the breathtaking original, often with disappointing results. Now, Eric Schaeffer has taken a crack at the musical. It's sad to say, but the eagerly anticipated production, whose initial run sold out before it opened, is far from the director's best work. This is a weakly cast and irritatingly amateurish incarnation of a show that, when performed satisfyingly, makes a convincing case for musical theater as art. The musical is about the illusions we create, in our lives as well as on the stage. Those illusions are embodied by the apparitions who haunt the reunion, ghostly younger versions of the wrinkled and lumpy ex-showgirls -- the Weismann girls -- around whom the evening is built. In this revival, unfortunately, there is little sense of the connection between the older women and the lives they formerly lived. Inadvertently, Signature has reinvented the show as the story of the reunion of the gallant former stalwarts of a broken-down community theater.

-- Peter Marks

FROM THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA -- (By African Continuum Theatre at H Street Playhouse through April 27)

Greenwood, Miss., circa 1955, offers a spare, hard life for a black girl born in a shotgun shack at the edge of the cotton fields. For most folks that Phelia knows, success is just staying out of trouble. By that measure, she's a miserable failure. Rebellious, angry, aching to get away, she's learned one hard lesson early: In this life, you have to take the bull by the horns. Because "either you throw the bull, or the bull throws you." As it turns out, Phelia throws the bull. In "From the Mississippi Delta," a fictionalized stage memoir, Phelia is a stand-in for author Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a university professor who adopted the name Endesha after she met civil rights workers in the early 1960s and went north to go to college. Endesha is Swahili for "driver," and as the play makes clear, it's an appropriate name. A high school dropout who worked briefly as a prostitute, Holland went on to earn her doctorate and become a professor of theater as well as a successful playwright. Scot Reese nimbly directs Jewell Robinson, Lynn Chavis and Thembi Duncan as they trade off playing Phelia, her mother, known as "Aint Baby," and a series of other characters who populate Holland's memories. Aint Baby is the moral voice that steers Phelia's conscience at her angriest and most reckless moments. The Freedom Riders offer Phelia a constructive channel for her rage, but it's her mother who has laid the foundation of resilience that she will come to rely on when her activities bring on a horrifying retribution.

-- Dolores Gregory

PENETRATOR -- (By Cherry Red Productions at Source Theatre through May 17)

"Penetrator" won't disappoint hardcore Cherry Red fans: It provides plenty of industrial-strength profanity, prurience and sleaze. But "Penetrator" is more than a flippant celebration of filth. It's a dense, provocative black comedy about war, fear, memory and friendship. The play was written by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson in response to the 1991 Gulf War, and its references to Iraq make the script sound relevant to current events. The play begins with a hitchhiking Marine, absent-mindedly looking for a ride while reading a porn magazine. The focus then shifts to a crummy apartment inhabited by two young men, Max and Alan, who are spicing up their Friday night with drugs and alcohol. They play cards and playfully criticize everything -- particularly the woman who has just dumped Max. The juxtaposition of these two very different scenes -- the sad loner and the carefree roommates -- sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is a series of violent mental and physical conflicts. When the AWOL Marine, Stiffy, appears at the apartment, he is distressed, rambling wildly about the "penetrators" who locked him in a black room and tortured him sexually. Director Kathleen Akerley sets a very fast tempo, smoothly orchestrating the plot and character twists and playing up the humor in this very dark drama.

-- Barbara Mackay

Continuing

AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' -- (At Arena Stage through May 25)

This serviceable revival, a co-production with Baltimore's Center Stage, comes to Arena a quarter-century after the original production made a trailblazing Broadway debut. A showcase for the silky jive of Fats Waller's syncopated songbook, the intimate revue not only popularized a new style of retrospective cabaret on Broadway but also became one of the most successful musicals of all time. The new "Ain't Misbehavin' " does not exert anything close to the gravitational pull of its celebrated ancestor, although the show's five-piece onstage band, led by the superb William Foster McDaniel, does operate in an orbit of Jazz Age cool all its own. The five singers who take us through about 30 standards by Waller, his peers and his collaborators -- atmospheric ditties like "Honeysuckle Rose," "T'Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" and "Your Feet's Too Big" -- are eager and occasionally inspired. What you find yourself missing in the erratic evening, though, is a bit of sin. The songs are all about vice and mischief, yet there is often little sizzle in the delivery, little sense that these songs are hot off the griddle. Even in this less-than-perfect incarnation, it's possible to commune with Waller and company, to smile away the world's ills. Pack up your troubles. Come on. Get happy.

-- P.M.

ELIZABETH THE QUEEN -- (At Folger Theatre through May 4)

Rarely is a single career woman presented with such a stark romantic dilemma: Your kingdom, madam, or your boyfriend's neck? Providentially, Michael Learned is in the house to wrestle with it. She is not only the "name" but also the centrifugal force in director Richard Clifford's savvy, quicksilver staging of Maxwell Anderson's 73-year-old play about a woman in control of everything except her own happiness. The play is Anderson's take on the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex, a nobleman whose popularity with the common people makes him a threat to her in matters beyond those of the heart. The heart, however, is precisely how Essex (Martin Kildare) gets to the queen, who's desperate to believe his protestations of love and, at the same time, ready to pounce at the slightest hint that he is less than fully attentive. Learned's Elizabeth presides over her court like the vain chairwoman of a board of narcissists, all skulking around the home office, seeking ways to maximize their wealth and power.

-- P.M.

HENRY V -- (By the Washington Shakespeare Company through April 26 at Clark Street Playhouse)

Those pesky French, always up to something! The French royals are meant to be deeply irritating in the Washington Shakespeare Company mounting of "Henry V"; the actors put on farcical Gallic accents, as if they were extras in a remake of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." It's disconcerting to have to report, however, that they are not the only annoying aspect of director David Bryan Jackson's patience-trying production, one that gives new meaning to the term "Shakespeare marathon." Somehow this most kinetic of history plays, filled with battlefield sequences and heart-stopping soliloquies, is made to seem endlessly windy. In the hands of Jackson's inexperienced cast, the piece clocks in at a soul-crushing 3 hours 10 minutes. But any sense of what meaning derives from the events of the play -- who these characters are, what their travails signify, how war transforms the impressionable Henry -- remains unexamined. As Henry, Karl Miller gets right the portrait of kingly entitlement. But the development of Henry's more mature traits, his vision and humanity, escapes the young actor. Many of the 11 actors are called upon to play three or four characters; sometimes triple or quadruple duty leads to very questionable choices, such as having Valerie Fenton play not only a French princess but also a French prince.

-- P.M.

I WORRY -- (By Woolly Mammoth Theatre at the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater through Sunday)

We're all a little extra tense these days, what with the Code Orange alerts and sealed-room advisories and renegade microbes and all. You can almost smell the heightened levels of anxiety, and not just on the streets. In the theaters, too. Take, for instance, the case of Sandra Tsing Loh, the public-radio commentator and performance artist whose sporadically funny new solo show for Woolly Mammoth, "I Worry," exhibits some of the classic symptoms of a talented monologist under too much pressure. Call it Under-Rehearsed Performance Stress Syndrome. The 75-minute piece is an up-to-the-nanosecond exploration of a frazzled culture driven to twisted extremes by an ever-expanding array of external threats. It's a worthy topic for satire: targeting the scary fact that we're all targets. At this juncture, unfortunately, "I Worry" fails to set a satisfying pace. Despite some clever interludes -- the best being the hysteria-filled letter she writes, to be read to her children in the event of her death in some horrible conflagration or other -- the piece is a mess.

-- P.M.

THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY -- (At Studio Theatre through May 18)

Philip Goodwin and Nancy Robinette go as naturally together as a pair of kid gloves in Edward Albee's mischievous "The Play About the Baby." The tight teamwork is a very good thing, because the characters they portray -- called simply Man and Woman -- are like a vaudeville act from the dark side. Their job is to beguile and bedazzle even as they rain a hellish kind of torment on a couple of innocents: their callow counterparts, Boy and Girl. Psychological torture, in fact, is the bulwark of their act in this comedy with fangs about the blinding illusions of youth and the bitter wisdom of age. The fight that Albee sets up here is by design not a fair one. Man and Woman have it all over Boy (Matt Stinton) and Girl (Kosha Engler). These mysterious older people -- urbane, ingratiating -- have arrived to prey upon the self-absorbed twentysomethings, to rob them of an untroubled sense of the world. The younger people's belief in the future is symbolized by the baby they've just had, and it is their blissfulness that the older couple is determined to destroy through some of the most vicious means conceivable. The way to parents' sense of security is through their child. "The Play About the Baby" is ultimately as savage as it is funny. At times it feels not about the people onstage but about the chasm that divides them, about the ravages of experience.

-- P.M.

RICHARD III -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through May 18)

Though Australian director Gale Edwards has chosen a modern setting for her production of "Richard III" -- the antiseptic lobby of a sinister hospital with, shall we say, unresolved quality-of-care issues -- the lethal goings-on remain positively medieval. Faster than you can say health maintenance organization, heads will roll. You may scratch your own head at some of Edwards's efforts to fit the square pegs of the play into the round holes of her notions. But it would be folly to try to resist her nervy showmanship. Assisted by a top-flight cast -- and, most rewardingly, by Wallace Acton's showboating sociopath of a Richard -- she treats the audience as if it had come to Shakespeare with much the same expectations as crowds in Elizabeth I's times, with the desire to be spooked, titillated, wowed. To see something they had never seen before. It's a high-concept approach. The entire corrupted kingdom is sick in the head -- and at heart. No wonder it spawns a latter-day Caligula who can arrange the murders of his brothers, wives and nephews as blithely as if he were ordering a tuna on rye to go. The caliber of acting, however, is so uniformly impressive in this "Richard III" that you could strike the set and the concept and still be left with a first-class treatment. The play, Shakespeare's first big success, is brimming with big moments and oratorical flourishes. (It is said that Abraham Lincoln loved the opening "winter of our discontent" speech.) From Edward Gero's cameo as a pathetically tubercular Edward IV to Tana Hicken's juicier role as the incensed Duchess of York, this company turns a blind eye to line counts. Commitment is all.

-- P.M.

1776 -- (At Ford's Theatre through June 8)

On the eve of war, the American general is anxiety-ridden. Facing an enemy army commanded by a pitiless tyrant, he is not at all sure what awaits his troops. Support at home is iffy; his countrymen are divided over whether this military campaign, a whole new kind of war, is warranted. And though his soldiers, bivouacked on harsh terrain, are spoiling for a fight, they are also young and uneasy about the deprivation, the lengthy separation from loved ones. Who knew a schmaltzy Broadway musical could so spookily home in on the zeitgeist of these tense times? The general is George Washington, the musical is "1776" and, with bull's-eye acumen, Ford's Theatre has revived the 1969 Tony winner in a pleasing production directed by David H. Bell. With the show's highly skilled and ably drilled cast of 25, Ford's is administering a dose of history-by-show-tune that goes down very easily. To see "1776" at Ford's is to realize afresh how far from a museum piece its creators, the composer Sherman Edwards and the book writer Peter Stone, sought to make it. It's chockablock with goofy numbers and winking references to matters of the flesh. The lyrics are pure, eye-rolling Broadway corn, but what Edwards and Stone were about was the business of demystifying history, years before it became the vogue among popular biographers. Director Bell and company are worthy enlistees in their cause. Ford's production, though, is not without its demerits: It's a shame, for instance, that the theater's abominable sound system is such an obstacle to audibility. Yet "1776" has just enough zest, just enough melody, just enough historical detail, to satisfy all the likely constituencies, from tourists to war buffs. Stone and Edwards managed to mine the story's emotional undercurrents and in the process allow us to see how the efforts of a disparate group of men could be harmonized, for the greater good of all.

-- P.M.

SALOME -- (By Synetic Theater at Church Street Theater through May 25)

An elegantly prepared mudslide into decadence and mayhem, Oscar Wilde's "Salome" just may be better suited to the page than the stage. That, at least, is a conclusion you're likely to draw after seeing Synetic Theater's beautiful but elusive production of an extremely lurid take on the biblical tale of Herod's capricious stepdaughter, her notoriously erotic dance of the seven veils, and her demand for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as payment. Some of the images that director Paata Tsikurishvili conjures, along with sensually undulating choreography provided by his wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, are blissfully mesmerizing. But the expressionistic production keeps bumping into the literal text. Herod (Greg Marzullo) is a man caught between the physical, i.e. his lust for Salome, and the spiritual, his fear of the holy prophet Jokanaan (Jonathan Leveck). Jokanaan has been heralding the coming of a savior and has loudly denounced Herod's marriage to Salome's mother as incestuous. The king has thrown him in prison but is afraid of executing him. Salome's sexual passion drives almost all the action. When Jokanaan spurns her attempts to kiss his lips, she preys upon Herod's lust for her to get what she wants. Director Tsikurishvili's highly stylized orchestration is often breathtaking, and had he stylized everything -- by, for example, not having made Salome's interactions with Jokanaan or his head so literal -- the evening might have achieved the cumulative, surreal power of Synetic's inaugural production of a silent "Hamlet." Still, Synetic's "Salome" is further evidence that the company is the most theatrically inventive and daring in town, and possibly the least in need of words.

-- William Triplett

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 how-they-dunit. 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. I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. 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.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES -- (At Round House Theatre through April 27)

Good things sometimes do come to those who wait, and if you can wait for the last third or so of Andrew Bovell's "Speaking in Tongues," you'll get something very good indeed. "Speaking in Tongues," a 1996 play that became a 2001 film under the title "Lantana," starts off almost as a joke. Two couples suffering the slings and arrows of middle age inadvertently swap partners when each spouse goes prowling for a one-night distraction. The twin seductions are played out in simultaneous overlapping scenes that satirize infidelity. One pair goes to bed, the other doesn't (conscience prevails), but both marriages fall into serious trouble when the betrayed spouses learn of the betrayal. Bovell then raises the usual questions: What is love? What is forgiveness? Who is right or wrong, good or bad? The four actors play a total of nine roles, but, as you might expect, they shine exceptionally in this last, best-written third of the piece. It's a special treat to see Andrew and Elizabeth Long, husband and wife as well as Shakespeare Theatre company members, show their considerable chops for contemporary psychological realism. His anguished, angry John and her aloof, vulnerable Sarah are memorable, as are Round House stalwarts Jane Beard and Marty Lodge, she as a controlling woman and he as a sheepish self-deceiver.

-- W.T.

LA VAGABONDE -- (By Le Neon Theatre through Sunday)

Le Neon Theatre, Arlington's French-American troupe, ends its 16-year run this month with a final production based on several works by French novelist Colette. "La Vagabonde" concerns a Parisian music hall performer torn between romance and career. Like earlier Le Neon ventures, it encapsulates all the delights and the attendant frustrations of the company's unique performance style. With its emphasis on image and physicality, "La Vagabonde" offers a refreshing break from psychological realism, but any theatergoer in search of a story could lose patience waiting for the thread of narrative to emerge from all the pictures. Co-adaptors Didier Rousselet, Dominique Montet and Monica Neagoy draw their dialogue directly from Colette, but they clearly have not turned to Aristotle for instructions in how to build a play. So don't look here for rising action, climax or a central character driving the story. In fact, there's not so much a story as there is a collage of scenes, characters, images, pantomimes and performance pieces, including two lovely solos by vocalist Barbara Papendorp and re-creations of the sensual tableaux vivants that Colette performed to a scandalized Paris.

-- D.G.