Mini Reviews

Opening

BILLY BUDD -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 3)

This staging of Benjamin Britten's opera is one of those productions that mark a spectacular advance for the troupe, raising the standards by which it must be judged in the future. Everything worked. The orchestra and chorus fulfilled their duties immaculately and exuberantly under the sweeping, authoritative direction of Richard Hickox. Francesca Zambello's stage direction was appropriately austere, in sympathy with both the story and the score. Adapted into a libretto from Herman Melville's novella by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, the story is told through the reflections of an old man and is a collection of enigmatic epiphanies shrouded in philosophic mist and shot through with an omnipresent undercurrent of homoeroticism. Dwayne Croft made a brilliant Billy, singing with clarity, power, a lustrous tone and unfailing dramatic intelligence.

-- Tim Page

MEET THE BROWNS -- (At the Warner Theatre through Sunday)

For all its no-you-didn't! finger-snapping, Tyler Perry's musical comedy about an African American family that gathers to bury its patriarch transcends baseness to deliver messages that would make Bill Cosby proud. The first scene brings the divorced MiLay back to the home of her parents, Sarah and L.B., after the death of MiLay's grandfather. The husband-and-wife team of David and Tamela Mann play Leroy Brown and his daughter, Cora, who grew up not knowing him. Pop Brown's death is the least of this family's worries, which include the drunken brashness of L.B. and Leroy's sister, Vera; the philandering of Vera's son, Will; the return of MiLay's husband, who apparently left her when their son died; and the burgeoning romance between Cora and a widowed preacher. Out of the conflicts surface a few common themes, all rooted in old-fashioned values and faith. Perry tempers the moralizing with terrific gospel and blues numbers.

-- Tricia Olzewski

A TALE OF A TIGER -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Calvary Methodist Church through Oct. 3)

Director and performer Ami Dayan delivers Dario Fo's political allegory with the skill of an animated lecturer as he makes eye contact with theatergoers, crouches before them, asks questions and -- gulp -- waits for answers. Dayan's relaxed and slightly silly stage presence is an extra spoonful of sugar in Fo's unexpectedly humorous monologue. Dayan's character, a soldier in Mao Zedong's army, loses contact with his brigade after a leg wound turns gangrenous and he is left for dead. A storm forces him to seek shelter in a cave, which is subsequently discovered by a tigress and her cub. Naturally, the soldier is at first terrified, but the tiger cleans and heals the soldier's wound, and over the subsequent days they form a little family. When the soldier starts to tire of this arrangement he finds his way to a village, where he preaches the healing powers of tiger saliva. It's here where "Tiger" hits a fork in the road, delivering one ending in Act 1 and a different one in Act 2. For all its playfulness, Dayan steers the play back to serious matters. Dayan may not want to incite revolution, but he's apparently not afraid of being political.

-- T.O.

TAMBOURINES TO GLORY -- (By True Colors Theatre at the Lincoln Theatre through Sunday)

What Langston Hughes's 1963 musical fable about a flimflamming pair of Holy Rollers preaches most vociferously is the gospel according to Kenny. Director Kenny Leon -- who is prominently represented on Broadway -- founded True Colors Theatre to present, among other things, classics of the African American stage. Set in mid-20th-century Harlem, this play tells of the devious doings of Laura Wright Reed (Alexandra Foucard), a bon vivant who sets up a street corner church not to save souls but to bilk the faithful. Her unlikely partner in crime, Essie Belle Johnson (Ebony Jo-Ann), is God-fearing and broke and enlists in Laura's schemes so she can obtain the money to bring her daughter to New York. The show is notable for its efforts to expose the musical tradition of black churches to a commercial audience; the cast includes a full gospel choir. The singing remains its chief asset, though, at times, the acoustics in the Lincoln are out of balance. The less forgivable deficiency is Hughes's ramshackle story. This production will appeal most to those with a curiosity about the roots of the gospel musical or a devotion to the work of Hughes.

-- Peter Marks

VAREKAI -- (By Cirque du Soleil at RFK Stadium through Oct. 24)

Clothes, it seems, make the acrobat. In this abundantly satisfying extravaganza, directed by Dominic Champagne, the dazzle doesn't end with the contortions of a woman who bends like Gumby, or a pair of aerialists who perform synchronized swimming skills in midair. No, the thrills under the big top extend to the work of Eiko Ishioka, whose costumes precipitously raise the bar on wonder. Cirque, in other words, has never looked more magical. The costumes are a reflection of Cirque's careful cultivation of an idea of spectacle that integrates to an astonishing degree story, movement, music and design.

-- P.M.

Continuing

ANDREA CHENIER -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 2)

With the exception of a few sturdy arias and duets, Umberto Giordano's opera is not especially distinguished. So it is left to the singers, the conductor, the orchestra and -- especially -- the stage director to capture our attention. The story is based on the trials of Andrea Chenier, a gifted poet and onetime revolutionary slaughtered by the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror. Director Mariusz Trelinski approached the staging as an eternal, multi-culti parable. Some of this was effective, some of it was ridiculous, most of it was at least interesting. The singing, too, was generally good. And, as usual, Eugene Kohn does everything an opera conductor is supposed to do -- support the lead singers, coordinate the chorus and orchestra, and keep it all vivid and exciting.

-- T.P.

THE ELEPHANT MAN -- (By Catalyst Theater Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop though Oct. 16)

More than 25 years after it was written, "The Elephant Man" continues to leave a large footprint in the repertory. It's not that Bernard Pomerance wrote an enduringly insightful, reliably wrenching drama when he took on the true story of the disfigured John Merrick, yet another 19th-century soul exploited as a freak. The hardiness of the play is because it is impeccably built. Pomerance's writing is full of the kind of buffed logic and flawlessly crafted epigrams that sound plummy in the mouths of skilled actors. Scott Fortier's inventiveness and discipline in playing Merrick are impressive, and Fortier aptly balances the body's agony with tenderness of spirit. Most of the supporting acting feels a little green, but the superb Valerie Leonard is on hand to deliver charming, nuanced work as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who takes a shine to Merrick.

-- Nelson Pressley

HOST AND GUEST -- (By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum through Oct. 16)

This production, fluidly staged by Synetic Theater artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, bestows a balletic eloquence on a bloody, age-old theme: the unending cycle of violence brought on by religious intolerance. Aided by Roland Reed's economical text, Vato Kakhidze's wrenching score and Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's cunningly primitive set design, the play is a superlative example of Synetic's daring and artistry. While on a deer hunt, Muslim peasant Joqola (Paata Tsikurishvili), befriends a hunter (Kavsadze) in need of shelter for the night, offering him a bed in his house. When the neighbors in his mountain village learn of Joqola's act of kindness, they are enraged: The hunter is a Christian and even worse, a man implicated in the murder of, among others, Joqola's brother. With lethal score-settling as familiar as this morning's front page, Synetic's depictions of ancient bloodletting can feel far too relevant for comfort.

-- P.M.

LENNY AND LOU -- (By Woolly Mammoth at the DCJCC's Goldman Theatre through Sunday)

Ian Cohen's smutty-funny cesspool of unbridled outer-borough neurosis, directed with a fastballer's dexterity by Tom Prewitt, is comedy gone mental. No stunt is too shocking, and sometimes Cohen points the shenanigans in the direction of the baldly sophomoric. Nevertheless, Cohen is a swell composer of comic crises and the risible lines he gives these actors crackle with a buoyant authenticity. Cohen's dialogue is spoken with an antic zest by Prewitt's cast, which is smashingly up to the assignment. Michael Russotto's Lou is a sweet, whiny loser, such a schlep he makes his brother Lenny (Howard Shalwitz) seem a veritable Jude Law. "Lenny & Lou" offers a seriously twisted account of a patented family dynamic, the rivalry between a pair of brothers for a mother's love. Cohen has constructed an entertaining, boundary-pushing comedy.

-- P.M.

LIVING OUT -- (At Round House Theatre through Oct. 10)

You've heard this story before, the one about the employer and the domestic, struggling to make sense of their own stressful worlds while groping for an understanding of each other's? Playwright Lisa Loomer takes her turn with the topic in her new guilty-yuppie play. It would be difficult to imagine this overly familiar material being served more capably than in Wendy C. Goldberg's vibrant staging, or for there to be actresses better suited to the central roles than Joselin Reyes and Holly Twyford. With its strong supporting actors, the cast is without a weak link. Goldberg conducts her ensemble with what feels like old-fashioned boulevard comedy know-how; the punch lines land effortlessly.

-- P.M.

MACBETH -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 24)

The Thane waffles, the Lady schemes, the King dies, the blood spills. The component parts all appear to be shipshape in Michael Kahn's handsome new staging of "Macbeth." Yet even as the ever-efficient Shakespeare Theatre sets the machinery of tragedy in motion, all the gauges indicate a vital element in short supply: electricity. This being Kahn's handiwork, the production is always smooth and lucid. There are inspired choices, and it's all easy on the eyes, but this production is also confoundingly easy on the nerves. You wonder, as the Macbeths and their henchmen cut a gory swath through the Scottish nobility, when this reign will start to feel like terror. The production is on a sort of seesaw, perched between a few interludes of insight and others that feel run-of-the-mill.

-- P.M.

M. BUTTERFLY -- (At Arena Stage through Oct. 17)

J. Hiroyuki Liao's enticing Song Liling, the enigmatic tempter/temptress who ensnares a gullible French diplomat in love and espionage, is reason enough to embrace this production, staged with theatrical dash by Tazewell Thompson. But he is far from the only reason. As the credulous embassy official, narrating the astonishing tale (based on a true story) of his longtime affair with a Chinese man he believed to be a woman, Stephen Bogardus conjures with a compelling grace his character's contradictions. The director, too, wraps David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning tragicomedy in a stylish package. The supporting cast is just as effective. In short, this is Arena energized and fully in its element, making the most of a play whose topicality has, if anything, intensified over the years.

-- P.M.

ONE RED FLOWER -- (At Signature Theatre through Oct. 3)

Based on actual letters home from soldiers on the front lines in Vietnam, from Bernard Edelman's book "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," this play's timely themes give it obvious curiosity value. It also has striking staging by director Eric Schaeffer, a cast of seven in polished voice and a passel of effervescent melodies by Paris Barclay that are infused with the energy of Motown and the Beach Boys. In its effort to embrace the complexity of war, the play is scrupulously balanced. However, while the missives the play is based on are infused with loneliness and dread and longing, the result does not include much drama.

-- P.M.

RUSSIAN NATIONAL POSTAL SERVICE -- (At Studio Theatre through Oct. 17)

Someone in the annals of fiction must suffer a more wretched daily existence than the hollow-cheeked pensioner in Oleg Bogaev's play. But Bogaev certainly makes a strong case for penury and boredom as the ultimate tests of human endurance in this surrealist folk tale about surviving on physical and psychic crumbs in modern Russia. The piece, directed by Paul Mullins, is a mirror of the life of its reclusive hero, Ivan Zhukov (Floyd King); it's both whimsical and arid. Ivan, retired from a life of arduous labor and receiving meager government benefits, confines himself to a musty apartment. His only entertainment is a bustling epistolary life that he carries on with a gallery of imaginary correspondents. The play is intriguingly offbeat.

-- P.M.

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

This interactive murder mystery, set in a Georgetown beauty parlor, is a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes. I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. Why would one of the world's premier showcases for theater tie up one of its stages for so long with any play, let alone one so inconsequential?

-- P.M.

THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE -- (By American Century Theater at the Gunston Arts Center through Oct. 9)

So this cop, this pinball wizard and this guy named Kit Carson walk into this bar -- as do a newsboy, a nurse, a longshoreman, a would-be vaudevillian, an Arab harmonica-player and . . . Well, suffice it to say that William Saroyan's play, set in a 1939 San Francisco saloon, is not one of those intimate two- or three-character plays that help keep curtain calls short. This rambling, bittersweet classic is meant to conjure up a restless panorama of American life, and that's certainly accomplished in this energetic and mostly entertaining production. With a couple of exceptions the acting of the 19-member cast leaves something to be desired, but Terry D. Kester's judicious direction creates fluctuating moods and rhythms that make the play a wry, profound and sometimes funny reflection of life in this country, and maybe life in general.

-- Celia Wren

VENUS -- (At the Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)

Nearly 200 years ago, a woman named Sartje Baartman was whisked out of Africa and exhibited in Europe as an anatomical freak for the amplitude of her caboose. Baartman was advertised as "The Venus Hottentot," a spectacle of titillation and revulsion. There's not much odd about Chinasa Ogbuagu's Baartman, though, in Eve Muson's staging of Suzan-Lori Parks's play. Muson isn't alone in hearing music in Parks's celebrated linguistic curlicues, but she may be among the first to turn parts of "Venus" into actual songs. The paradox of "Venus" is that despite the vaudeville tactics, Parks steers as far as she can from melodrama, yet this object lesson in exploitation keeps inching in that direction.

-- N.P.