CONTINENTE VIRIL -- (By Teatro de la Luna at Gunston Arts Center through June 18)
The setup sounds like the beginning of a joke: A scientist, a clerk and two soldiers are living on an Argentine military base in the Antarctic. The scientist is visiting to conduct a study of penguins on the base, prompted after a number of them apparently committed suicide. Most of the play is breezy, though when the scientist's closing monologue speaks of a "rite of passage," you may feel as if you've missed something. Indeed, theatergoers not intimately familiar with Latin American history will likely view the play as nothing more than a slight story about four men and some kamikaze birds. As with all of Teatro's productions, this one is in Spanish with English surtitles. Despite its occasional funny moments, the two-act play tends to drag, the victim of a weak narrative.
-- Tricia Olszewski
THE LION KING -- (At the Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore, through Sept. 4)
Discerning adults may notice that the story in this wildly popular Disney show is thinly stretched over a production that runs nearly three hours, and that the ballads Elton John and Tim Rice added for the stage are yawners. But these things hardly matter. What the musical has accomplished is the inspired tailoring of an animated film to the imaginative measurements of the stage. When it comes to kids' spectacles, few productions do it better. This touring production is a virtual photocopy of the Broadway original, and that largely is a good thing. The director, Julie Taymor, reinterpreted the beloved 1994 blockbuster about the coming of age of Simba, a lion cub destined to rule Pride Rock. Musically and visually, Africa is as flavorfully woven into the stage version as it was lacking in the movie. Entrancing images of flora and fauna abound, but they embroider a lumbering story that adults and even tweeners are likely to find slow going at times. Nevertheless, Taymor's lavish production demonstrates to children that theater can still perform its own indelible acts of magic.
-- Peter Marks
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 Sunday)
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.
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. A tone that's simultaneously fearsome and absurd 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 Sunday)
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.
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 Sunday)
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. 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.
-- 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. 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?
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. With Schaeffer's minimalist approach, the set is reduced to a few poles, crude crates and a flimsy sun and the cast is winnowed to 10. Writ small, "Pacific Overtures" is still a voyage with big ideas.
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 Saturday)
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 Saturday)
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. 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. 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.
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.
VAREKAI -- (By Cirque du Soleil at Harbor Point, Baltimore, 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.