IVONA, PRINCESS OF BURGUNDIA -- (By Scena Theatre at Warehouse Theater through Sunday)
In this work by Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz, silence isn't golden, it's downright detestable. Set in Europe in the recent past, the play is an absurdist fairy tale in which small talk is equated with decency and stillness is a capital offense. Princess Ivona (Svetlana Tikhonov) is a pensive creature who unsettles the busybodies of King Ignatius's court with her obstinate torpor. But the attention that she attracts isn't all unfavorable. Though Prince Philip (Christopher Henley), heir to Ignatius's throne, initially agrees with his family and friends that Ivona is a "universal irritant," he also finds her curiously appealing and impetuously proposes marriage. As the discomfort that Ivona inspires in Philip's confidants morphs into hatred, "Ivona" becomes a morality play about the potential ugliness lurking under the appearance of propriety. In contrast to all the talk of dullness, this production pops off the stage. Director Robert McNamara nicely highlights the script's absurdism, while Alisa Mandel's costumes are unexpected combinations of various historical eras. Though "Ivona's" ending seems abrupt, it's actually merely succinct -- a rather appropriate finish to a play that condemns blather.
-- Tricia Olzewski
A LESSON BEFORE DYING -- (By African Continuum Theatre Company at H Street Playhouse through Oct. 10)
Just because a story is familiar doesn't mean it can be glossed over. This stage adaptation by Romulus Linney from Ernest J. Gaines's novel tells an inherently powerful story of the impending execution of a wrongly convicted young black man in 1948 Louisiana. Yet its thinly drawn characters and over-simplified plot prevent that power from being more than sporadically felt. It's a few weeks before teenage Jefferson (G. Alverez Reid) is going to be sent to the electric chair. His elderly godmother, Miss Emma (JoAnn M. Williams), entreats a family friend, Grant Wiggins (Jefferson A. Russell), to counsel Jefferson before his execution and attempt to restore his pride so he can "die like a man." Reid is a standout among the cast in Linney's juiciest role. The supporting characters, however, rarely move beyond their one-note agendas. ACTCo's production excels in creating a mournful atmosphere. For instance, when not involved in a scene, Williams and Johnson provide musical accompaniment, singing psalms and spirituals in gorgeously plaintive voices. These touches show that although the play's message of meeting oppression with dignity may be unassailable, it's the details that make it worth telling.
PICTURESQUE -- (By Big Apple Circus at Dulles Town Center through Oct. 11)
The beguiling new production by Big Apple Circus serves up the standard big-top attractions -- acrobats, clowns, jugglers, performing critters -- with a generous helping of aesthetic allusion, employing cleverly designed sets and costumes to link the acts with the work of painters and sculptors. The artistic references are in no case essential to the performances, but the painterly and sculptural motifs lend an extra touch of glamour, and a playfulness in the delivery eliminates all but the merest hint of pretentiousness. A little pomposity would go a long way in the cozy environment of the Big Apple -- a one-ring circus in which no audience member sits more than 50 feet from the stage -- the intimate setup makes it easy to concentrate on the proficient performances. The highlight of the show is in the two acts wrangled by animal trainer Svetlana Shamsheeva, a sexy redhead with a glitzy stage presence. For those who prefer human derring-do, the cosmopolitan cast offers a range of acrobatic routines. Tonal and disciplinary variety are among the virtues of the circus, and in general the show maximizes on those virtues with disarming modesty and inventiveness.
-- Celia Wren
THE SEAGULL -- (By Rep Stage at Howard Community College through Oct. 10)
Americans often play Chekhov the way they do cricket -- as if it's someone else's game. So it's a pleasure to report that this play's new incarnation avoids many of the usual hazards. Director Kasi Campbell sensitively guides an agile cast through a warm and intelligent rendering of the sad string of cruelties rained down on vivacious Nina (Megan Anderson) and tragic Konstantin (Karl Miller), the tortured young man who loves her. Campbell has done an exceptionally good job of casting, and the translation she uses, by wordsmith Tom Stoppard, is supple and pleasingly colloquial. This is a deeply pessimistic play, one that piles misery on misery. The saddest lots are doled out to the most attractive characters, Konstantin, a frustrated writer, and Nina, an aspiring actress. In Chekhov's cynical view, both are worthy, promising young people -- and so are doomed. Campbell and company provide an evening with a sturdy foundation and a smooth finish. For all its merits, this "Seagull" is not the most emotional you're likely to encounter, yet Campbell's production is an admirable example of how to make Chekhov most welcome in an alien land.
-- Peter Marks
THE SUBJECT -- (By Charter Theatre at Warehouse Next Door through Oct. 17)
It's not working, I'm calling it off, I'm walking out the door. This is the persistent temptation of Penny Golden, the emotionally needy waitress and photography model in D.C. playwright Allyson Currin's two-character comedy. The audience is likely to empathize, and not just because the photographer for whom Penny is sitting has an offbeat appeal that frequently slides over the line into creepiness. It's because the script itself vacillates between lovable and leavable. Swallow Currin's tenuous setup and you're in for an Act 1 of Penny (Kathleen Coons) modeling on a secondhand chaise in stalker/photographer David's (Chris Stezin) shabby little studio. Currin taps into Penny's rich chatterbox vein and lets the daffy dialogue flow, revealing a character who is fizzy and fuzzy in equal degrees. Currin teases this wan little scenario into a full-bodied play in part through the gradual accretion of character details. Her writing, as usual, has a certain lift and shine. Director Richard Washer gives the play the few production elements it absolutely calls for, and Currin sees her premise through to a surprisingly nifty ending.
-- Nelson Pressley
ANDREA CHENIER -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Saturday)
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.
-- Tim Page
BILLY BUDD -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Sunday)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ONE RED FLOWER -- (At Signature Theatre through Sunday)
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.
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.
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?
A TALE OF A TIGER -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Calvary Methodist Church through Sunday)
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.
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.
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.