HEADSMAN'S HOLIDAY -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through June 26)
Capricious politics and bare bottoms collide in Kornel Hamvai's deliciously anarchic Hungarian play. The story is a romp through revolutionary France in the heyday of the guillotine; a mild-mannered executioner named Roch (Brian Osborne) gets transferred to Paris, and in a series of picaresque misadventures the rapacious, self-centered world spills itself before him. Director Aaron Posner has a large, well-balanced ensemble to work with, and the company effectively plays everything from a bloodthirsty rabble to a comically mismatched quartet in a horse-drawn carriage. Conrad Feininger creates a lasting impression -- wearing barely more than a tricolored loincloth -- as he presides over a public execution, roaring bloody hell at the condemned, setting a tone that's simultaneously fearsome and absurd. That mixed tone is what makes this devilish, obstreperous play such an intriguing piece of writing, and such evident fun to perform. The entire production has a kind of cool sass that matches Hamvai's surprising dialogue, which is by turns thoughtful, salty and awfully wry.
-- Nelson Pressley
HECUBA -- (By the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through June 12)
Vanessa Redgrave with blood on her hands: Now that's something you pay to see. A Trojan queen reduced by the Greeks to groveling slave, Redgrave's Hecuba is a shattered woman driven to barbarity not by madness but by a desperate calculation wrought of grief. In this version of Euripides' play, adapted and directed by Tony Harrison, the militant Greek city-states that invade and subjugate Troy are part of a "coalition force" answerable to no one. Still, this "Hecuba" holds on to too much of the flavor of Euripides (including a singing chorus) to be regarded as outright agitprop. The play follows an arc of pain, beginning with the dramatic testimony of the ghost of Hecuba's murdered son, Polydorus (Matthew Douglas), through the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena (Lydia Leonard), as demanded by the ghost of Achilles. It all builds to a blood-soaked climax revolving around Hecuba's revenge on Polydorus's murderer, Polymestor (Darrell D'Silva). Only when Hecuba's work is done does Redgrave let herself go. The otherworldly shrieks resound across the ages.
-- Peter Marks
THERSITES -- (By Scena Theatre at Warehouse Theater Second Stage through July 10)
Carter Jahncke plays the harmonica, imitates Elvis and swears a lot. He dodges missiles and talks about bestiality. And near the monologue's end, he starts spinning with arms outstretched, crying out as he whirls. Jahncke is "Thersites," the blind, foul-mouthed Greek soldier who in "The Iliad" criticizes Agamemnon and in turn gets beaten by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. You likely won't grasp any of those details from Robert McNamara's new play, however. And that seems to belie the point: "Thersites" is the first offering of a trilogy Scena calls "The Classics Made Easy," which purports to retell ancient epics from a different perspective and with a modern, streamlined sensibility. The idea's an interesting one, but those with a firm grasp of Greek myth will get more out of this production than will neophytes. This play is more of a rant whose details are thick but whose narrative is never clear. One of the script's strengths is its rhythm, and Jahncke delivers it all with an energy that's part preacher, part street tough. It's a performance that would be compelling if the story weren't so difficult to follow -- and ultimately lulling.
-- Tricia Olszewski
ANNA CHRISTIE -- (At Kreeger Theatre through June 19)
Eugene O'Neill had a soft spot for ladies of the evening, especially in this tenderhearted fable of a fallen woman and the Irish lug she falls for. The production offers several reasons for applause, including Kevin Tighe's turn as Anna's father, director Molly Smith's feel for O'Neill's rhythms, Bill C. Ray's sets and Michael Gilliam's lighting. Still, it is Anna who's at the helm of this dockside love story. Though the fetching Sara Surrey capably gives us a feel for Anna's toughness, she skimps on the character's frailty. The consolation in this production is the moving account of Anna's father, Chris, who wrestles with one terrible sin: When he went to sea, he left his daughter with abusive relatives, causing Anna's descent into prostitution and despair. Nevertheless, the uplifting human potential for redemption courses through the play. You can appreciate "Anna," it seems, even if you don't always feel as much as O'Neill did for Anna.
BIG DEATH AND LITTLE DEATH -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through June 12)
The black comedy that has been chosen to launch the Woolly Mammoth's new theater is pretty excruciating. Written by screenwriter Mickey Birnbaum and staged by Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, the play, in an inauspicious world premiere, is a shrill meditation on nihilism in America. For a less inviting way to inaugurate the space, you'd have to fill it with the sounds of puppies being devoured. Oh, wait. The play has that, in the opening scene, and what follows is a lot of histrionic stuff. Sweating and swaggering, sex, drug-taking and dying, to an intermittent heavy-metal bleat. The evening lumbers from one juvenile vignette to another, with detours for ruminations on death. Is "Big Death and Little Death" a sendup of the Woolly style? There's a mystery worth unraveling.
BIG RIVER -- (By Deaf West Theatre at Ford's Theatre through Saturday)
Even if you speak only one language when you step into the theater, you'll come out well versed in two. Your new second language is American Sign, which is employed with touching panache in this inspiring reinvention of the folksy musical adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The show is performed by a cast of hearing and deaf actors whose styles are imaginatively blended by director Jeff Calhoun. Though Mark Twain's piquant humor is not always apparent in William Hauptman's script, and the heartland innocence becomes a bit tiresome, the ebullient songs by Roger Miller save the day. The evening's chief fascination, though, is its breakthrough technique. You are constantly being shown the manner in which two disparate worlds can be made one, as when the majestically talented Michael McElroy (playing runaway slave Jim), a hearing actor, plays his scenes on the raft with a deaf Huck (Christopher B. Corrigan). While McElroy signs and sings his role, Huck's vocals are supplied by Bill O'Brien, who also plays Twain, perched onstage as the omniscient, banjo-plucking narrator. This "Big River" shows that theater still has the power to lead by imaginative will.
HANNAH AND MARTIN -- (At Theater J at the DCJCC through Sunday)
For a drama about philosophers, this play is bracingly energetic. Playwright Kate Fodor not only believes in the power of ideas, but she has figured out, in her very first play, how to translate rigorous thought into compelling drama. The title characters are real-life antagonists Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger -- colleagues, illicit lovers, major 20th-century philosophers and subjects of a much-researched relationship. They split as Hitler's power increased in the 1930s; Arendt fled Germany, while Heidegger stayed and embraced aspects of the Nazi philosophy. It is those confounding aspects that Fodor intriguingly tries to parse, channeled through Arendt, who is played here with both assurance and angst by Elizabeth Rich. Fodor's Heidegger is a character who exists at gale force, and John Lescault acts the part with high stentorian style. Director Jeremy B. Cohen inspires Rich and Lescault to argue at full speed, which they manage to do while capturing each shade of feeling, every shift of power. It's a focused, daringly grown-up production.
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS -- (By Synetic Theatre at Rosslyn Spectrum through June 25)
The journey Synetic takes to its mesmerizing climax has, like the mythic expedition of the Argo itself, some rougher stretches, particularly in its long, dry dialogue scenes. But in the interludes that are translated into the resourceful company's mother tongue -- emphatic, sinewy movement -- the story flows in supple rivers. The artistic director, Paata Tsikurishvili, has chosen not to build his version of the legend of the golden fleece around the trials of the Argo. Jason's betrayal of his wife, Medea, is the focus, and it casts the story as one of human foibles rather than feats of daring. The choice proves effective, because it allows the director to showcase, as Medea, his choreographer-wife, the exotic, gazelle-like Irina. The cast, as usual, features many talented, agile actor-dancers, and the visuals are stunning, but it is the riveting Irina who gives this voyage its balletic ballast.
LEND ME A TENOR -- (At Olney Theatre Center through June 12)
Mistaken identities, absurd disguises, slamming closet doors, compromising states of undress -- Ken Ludwig's play dutifully trots out all the hallmarks of farce, but the actors' ceaseless mugging gives this production a strained quality, making the far-fetched plot twists more tedious than pleasurable. Director John Going, hasn't helped matters with some of his unsubtle touches. Not that the play is a masterpiece of craftsmanship to begin with: A certain staginess characterizes this tale of a 1930s Cleveland opera company whose collaboration with a self-indulgent world-class tenor, Tito Merelli (Paul Jackel), provokes an avalanche of improbable developments. James Kronzer's set is pronounced without being preposterous, which is more than can be said for the rest of the show. All the same, the play will delight many viewers: It is, after all, a fast-paced piece of mindless fluff, churning out jokes with the mechanical reliability of a pinball machine. Demanding theatergoers, however, will find that this opera spoof doesn't hit many high notes.
-- Celia Wren
MAMMA MIA! -- (At National Theatre through July 2)
Funny thing about these jukebox musicals that package pop hits as Broadway-style shows: You can't just plug them in and expect them to work. Yes, this Abba-driven show still has silly energy to spare and irresistible pop hooks around every corner, plus hordes of offstage singers faithfully replicating each familiar chorus and a pit band that seems to be having a blast pumping out that glossy Abba sound. In shorter supply, though, are leading performers who are really good at doing the karaoke thing with the Abba catalogue. The show's mode of calculated, highly polished nonsense is triggered by its plot about Donna Sheridan, a single American mother on a Greek island whose wilder days are revisited when her daughter gets engaged. The daughter invites to her wedding all three men who might plausibly be her biological father. Abba's familiar music begs to be sung with authority even when the characters are horsing around, and that happens less reliably here than on previous tours. The songs may be the stars of these jukebox musicals, but they still need singers, don't they?
MATT & BEN -- (by Accokeek Creek Theatre Company at DC Arts Center through June 4)
Playwrights Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers imagine struggling actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck working on a doomed project back in the '90s, when the 1997 Oscar-winning script for "Good Will Hunting" literally falls from the sky. And when the pair are hammering out a screen adaptation of "Catcher in the Rye," it is Ben (Tina Renay Fulp) who is typing. "Spell out words you think I'll have trouble with," he reminds Matt (Dionne Audain). You read those names right: Fulp and Audain are women. Kaling and Withers wrote their drama to be played by actresses, originally performing it themselves, and this staging stays faithful to their vision. The twist adds little but novelty to the 75-minute one-act, but here Fulp and Audain do adequate jobs of capturing what the tabloids project are the celebrities' personalities. Yet the script becomes dominated by an oddly dramatic tone as well, considering the play is a spoof of Affleck and Damon's how'd-they-do-that Oscar recognition. The amusing gags are eventually overshadowed by the rockiness of the characters' relationship, a turn not only unexpected but monotonous.
OF A SUNDAY MORNING -- (By Charter Theatre at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts through June 5)
Theater-goers who prefer their mysteries wrapped in enigmas may enjoy local playwright Richard C. Washer's new play. Unfortunately, the drama turns out to be less than illuminating. It's the future, and a Big Brother-type government seems to have recently imprisoned Susanna (Lee Mikeska Gardner). Carly (Sarah Melinda), a nervous young office type, is charged with Susanna's comfort and takes orders from Ives (Ray Ficca), a matter-of-fact fellow in rumpled business clothes. Also, a robotic woman, Archive (Tricia McCauley), occasionally roams the stage, reciting stories about mourners at a grave site and a couple eyeing each other at church. At first, the elusiveness of the play's bigger picture is intriguing. Washer's dialogue compels you to listen closely for clues about exactly what is going on, and the cast all cut vivid characters. However, when Act 2 rolls around and there are still no details about, for example, who Ives is and where the action is even taking place, the play starts getting a little tiresome. In the end, "Of a Sunday Morning" is little more than a sequence of puzzling interactions that don't add up to much.
PACIFIC OVERTURES -- (At Signature Theatre through July 3)
Director Eric Schaeffer, a Stephen Sondheim partisan, has a knack for rethinking big musicals in smaller packaging. Here, Signature has done Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman a service, effectively putting its own distinctive spin on one of the most challenging works in the Sondheim canon. This musical stakes out cerebral terrain for musical comedy: it's an attempt by American writers to tell the Darwinian story of an Eastern society overrun by the West, a culture that loses its way, then learns to adapt and thrive. The action recounts Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to Japan. With Schaeffer's minimalist approach, the set is reduced to a few poles, crude crates and a flimsy sun, the cast is winnowed to 10, and Jon Kalbfleisch's seven-piece band sits in full view of the audience. Writ small, "Pacific Overtures" is still a voyage with big ideas.
SAMSON ET DALILA -- (At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Saturday)
Camille Saint-Saens had it right when he called his "Samson et Dalila" a "dramatic oratorio." Parts of the score are lovely, but it is dramatically inert and no more deserves to be called an opera than does Handel's "Messiah." Nevertheless, companies continue to stage "Samson," which is generally well cast here -- with tenor Carl Tanner as Samson, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Dalila, and numerous smaller roles fulfilled with sensitivity and style. In short, those who love the music may wish to consider investing in a ticket. Still, when one considers what, say, Richard Wagner might have made of this decidedly sexy story, Saint-Saens's treatment comes up lacking.
-- Tim Page
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.
SHKSPR PRJCT -- ( Catalyst Theatre at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 11)
In her aggressively physical adaptation of "Macbeth," director Kathleen Akerley transforms William Shakespeare's text the way "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" gut-renovates a house. A corps of seven actors essentially tear the Bard's plot from its foundation and scatter the words like sawdust. On a spartan set, with a full moon as backdrop, words and gestures are repeated rhythmically, actors writhing and quivering in manic parades. You know it's Shakespeare because a few shards of exposition and, more important, some familiar names and phrases, survive. So, is it worth the toil and trouble? Well, yeah. In a city that tends to shy away from deconstructed texts and other modernist conceits, Akerley's production blows in like an invigorating gust.
SIDE MAN -- (By Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater through June 11)
A simple song request quickly establishes the tone of Warren Leight's drama. Clifford, the son of a jazz trumpeter, is on his way to one of his father's shows, the first time he'll have seen his dad in a few years. But Clifford first checks in on his mom, who in one breath curses her estranged husband and in the next urges Clifford to be sure his father plays her favorite song: "Why Was I Born?" "I'll ask," Clifford deadpans. The semi-amused sourness behind this nihilistic question is a recurring theme. With Clifford (Chris Stezin) serving as narrator, Leight's play spans the 1950s, when Clifford's parents, Terry (Amy McWilliams) and Gene (Kevin Adams), met, to 1985, when the couple's bohemian breeziness has long since turned caustic. The play isn't two hours of misery, however. Leight cushions all the dolor with a fair dose of humor, whether it's Clifford's gentle sarcasm or Terry's comical rancor.
TAKE ME OUT -- (At Studio Theatre through July 10)
A lyrical valentine to the national pastime encased in the turbulent story of a gay superstar, this play has been staged to virtual perfection by a team that can be described only as, well, fabulous. Richard Greenberg's locker room comedy-drama is an impassioned portrait of the game, but it also tackles such issues as race-baiting, gender politics and friendship. Director Kirk Jackson's production features four smashing performances -- by Tug Coker, M.D. Walton, Jake Suffian and Rick Foucheux -- anchoring this exploration of the trials and terrors of male bonding. Much of the story revolves around the tale's hero, Darren Lemming (Walton), who is handsome and regal. He is also gay, which he announces to the media, throwing the team into turmoil. Torn between their ingrown biases -- Lemming is also biracial -- and the pressure from society to be more tolerant, the players and manager are forced onto a treacherous playing field. The characters talk both directly to us and to one another, and the play seesaws between interludes of therapeutic confession and sandlot-style confrontation. And given that it's a locker room, working showers and all, there is -- you should know walking in -- a healthy amount of strutting in the altogether, which is a sustained and crucial aspect of the drama. Greenberg is pushing a lot of hot buttons, but what flames hottest is something that words ultimately fail: an irrational, unrequited love for a game.
VAREKAI -- (By Cirque du Soleil at Harbor Point through June 19)
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.
THE VOYSEY INHERITANCE -- (At Center Stage in Baltimore through Sunday)
A man might wear elegant clothes, speak like a Shakespearean scholar and always know which fork to use. But as Harley Granville-Barker asserts, the trappings of refinement are meaningless if a man lacks an ethical compass and the capacity for shame. Barker, a George Bernard Shaw contemporary, sees the evils of the rich in something akin to genetic terms in his 1905 play that is stylishly revived here. The drama's amoral paterfamilias, Trenchard Voysey (John Ramsey), is carrying on his father's legacy, bilking clients of the savings they've entrusted to his family's London investment firm. Now he is preparing to pass it on to his own reluctant son, Edward (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The play, adapted by Gavin Witt and staged with skill by Irene Lewis, draws its tension from the steely determination of the son to expose his father's deceptions and repay the stolen money. The fine acting, vibrant sets and ravishing costumes make for a period piece apt for any morally challenged period.