BEHOLD! -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church through June 25)
Playwright James Hesla offers the carnival hard sell in this sentimental new comedy that weaves a varied band of oddballs into a loose cosmic pattern. Hesla's characters are in crazy pursuit of a ballyhooed box of prophecy, but one of the big problems with his scattershot script is that he doesn't make this goal urgent and goofy enough to make you care. With a script that sends a fevered disc jockey, a cowboy sideshow huckster, a spacy dry-cleaning clerk, a maudlin sea captain and more into the same muddled quest, no doubt it's tough to play it cool. Yet whenever this play relaxes a bit, the show comes closer to realizing its twin goals: a) marveling at fate, coincidences and unexplained phenomena, and b) making the trip an enjoyable lark.
-- Nelson Pressley
CENDRILLON -- (By the Summer Opera Theatre Company at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre through Sunday)
Deriving his Cinderella from Charles Perrault's classic, Jules Massenet's librettist, Henri Cain, keeps to a rather straight account of the fairy tale: Reduced to menial servanthood by her wicked stepmother and bossy stepsisters, Cinderella wins the ultimate makeover when transformed into a lavishly attired princess by her angelic fairy godmother and eventually wins her Prince Charming. Massenet gives his all's-well-that-ends-well story a twist, casting it as a comedy of the absurd, gently mocking the magical events with scenes of rudely intruding reality, yet keeping Cinderella's plight dead serious. Summer Opera takes it further by transferring the French belle epoque setting to present-day Washington, with Pandolfe (Cinderella's father) recast as a diplomat and Prince Charming transformed into the president's son. David Grindle's smartly timed staging underlined the comical aspects of the production. In an able cast, Maureen Francis sings the title role with fresh radiance, while the chorus handled its prominent role with precise ensembles and skillfully humorous byplay.
-- Cecelia Porter
LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through July 31)
Style is served up by the champagne-bucketful in Keith Baxter's immensely pleasurable production of Oscar Wilde's vivid account of London swells in the early 1890s. The cast of 26 deftly manages the difficult trick of defining each character's specific perch on the social ladder, and Baxter's production holds its own as a polished and piquant guide to Wilde's world of pettiness, haughtiness and self-delusion. Although the play has a climactic moment of farce that is wonderfully realized here, the secrets unraveled in this "Fan" conform more to the dictates of melodrama than to those of drawing-room comedy. A cast of fine, diverting actors embroider a story revolving around the household of the Windermeres, the wealthy couple whose marriage is severely tested after Lady Windermere (Tessa Auberjonois) discovers the account book her husband (Andrew Long) has been keeping to record his clandestine payments to an older woman, one Mrs. Erlynne (Dixie Carter). It is the strength and warmth of Carter's performance that provides the play's steely backbone. And the designers give the physical world of the play a beautiful finish.
-- Peter Marks
MEDEA -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company Clark Street Playhouse through July 3)
Pure and simple is often the most secure way to go with a playwright such as Euripides, and it's the path that the Washington Shakespeare Company thankfully adopts, for the most part, in this sleek and intense new staging of the play. Under the lucid direction of Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter, the actors prove reliable guides through the tragedy's rapids of raw emotion. Delia Taylor, in particular, makes for a convincingly disturbed Medea; the more she allows herself to think, the more wedded she becomes to a self-abnegating scheme, butchering her two young sons as revenge on her betrayer of a husband. This production is indeed the diary of a mad housewife. The setting is timeless and right for the occasion. The hole in the center of the stage, filled with sand, is where we first see Medea hatching her plot and where she eventually slays her children, who are represented onstage by life-size dolls. Carrasquillo and MacWhorter must have issued the dictum during rehearsal that less is more, for the cast rarely over-emotes. The play's gripping climax is unsettling and yet without a trace of blood. In the final image, Taylor lies in the sandpit, enfolded in the bodies of the others actors. We're all, it seems, dragged down with Medea into the abyss.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND -- (At Round House Theatre through July 3)
If you love someone, set them free -- that's the subtext of the most affecting scene in this solid production directed by Scot Reese. In the sequence, two elderly Caribbean peasants, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian (Beverly A. Cosham and David Emerson Toney), who have adopted Ti Moune (Montego Glover), the show's free-spirited heroine, sadly sanction her planned journey away from home. It's a touchingly human moment in a show that traffics in archetypes and Big Themes -- the resilience of love and of nature, the inevitability of death, class struggle, the power of storytelling -- all leavened by piquant Caribbean-flavored music. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty adapted the work from Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," a riff on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" set in the French Antilles. The narrative is a tale-within-a-tale: Villagers relate the saga of Ti Moune, who becomes enamored of a man from the island's snobbish wealthy class. Meddling in the affair are the gods of Earth, Love, Water and Death, whose somewhat grandiose presence makes the story feel more like a legend and less like a human drama. So it's a relief that Glover punches up Ti Moune's idiosyncrasies, suggesting a charisma that might indeed seduce an aristocrat.
-- Celia Wren
ANNA CHRISTIE -- (At Kreeger Theatre through Sunday)
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.
CONTINENTE VIRIL -- (By Teatro de la Luna at Gunston Arts Center through Saturday)
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
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.
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.
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.
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 10)
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.
TAKE ME OUT -- (At Studio Theatre through July 17)
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 Sunday)
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.