Mini Reviews

Opening

GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Sept. 18)

For all its canny craftsmanship, this piece cannot adequately address the sad riddle at its heart: Why did Wilde so vigorously embark on a legal course that would lead to his own ruin? Jeremy Skidmore's very fine staging of Moises Kaufman's innovative 1997 courtroom drama offers no substantive new clues to the puzzle. But his production suffuses the play-by-play of the celebrated case with a fervent theatricality. If Wilde's motives remain a mystery, in accusing the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, of libeling him as a "sodomite," an audience gets to see in ever sharper relief what kind of world Wilde was up against. Concerning itself with an artist who came to care more for beauty than popular validation, the play is a reminder of the myriad forms in which a dissenting voice can speak. And out of the mouths of Skidmore's youthful cast, "Gross Indecency" does indeed reinvigorate the words spoken and written by Wilde and others more than a century ago. With three trials to get through, the play can be quite a squirmy experience. Skidmore, fortunately, has an eye for spectacle, and, aided greatly by lighting designer Andrew E. Cissna, he finds all sorts of intriguing ways to dramatize the trials. "Gross Indecency" does not have to crack open Wilde's psyche to make us feel deeply for him. At the play's conclusion, there's one final tidbit from the writer's marvelous work, recited to us in total darkness. It's a moving indication of how well Skidmore's sensibility meshes with Kaufman's handiwork. Offered to us as history, it plays like tragedy.

-- Peter Marks

URINETOWN -- (At Signature Theatre through Oct. 9)

Can a boy whose career is in the toilet and a girl whose father controls the instruments of personal hygiene find love in a city where you have to pay every time you, um, go? This is the musical question echoing throughout the sublimely zany canyons of a show that gives a whole new connotation to comic relief. This self-consciously silly musical proves to be a natural for Signature and a merry band of players. An ecological disaster has drained the water table and forced authorities to regulate urination. The public urinals are now controlled by a corrupt corporation run by Hope's father, Caldwell B. Cladwell. When Cladwell raises the urinal fees, Bobby leads a rebellion of the poor against the rich. Director Joe Calarco, like the actors, is energized by the freewheeling opportunity to send up the conventions of old Broadway. So many of the hands responsible for the production are in top form that the musical's more trying aspects -- manic campiness has its limits -- seem mere hiccups. Karma Camp's choreography, for instance, is inventive and inspired, and Anne Kennedy's wigs and costumes are a full-scale riot. The cast rises ebulliently to the challenge of sustaining the caricature-driven insanity. Will Gartshore, playing Bobby Strong, delivers a star-caliber performance, and when matched with Erin Driscoll's Hope Cladwell, it's double delight. All contribute to the evening's polish and the feeling of well being that comes when a production is, pardon the expression, flush with talent.

-- P.M.

Continuing

LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES -- (By the Actors' Theatre of Washington at Source Theatre through Sept. 4)

In this Christopher Hampton period play based on a 1782 French novel, the two main characters pride themselves on their wit and cunning. Bored with their lives of leisure, they pass the time playing games with others'. Both use their sexuality to their advantage, but really, their sexes don't matter. This is one way to look at what ATW -- which is dedicated to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender theater -- is calling its "all male, but not necessarily gay" production of Hampton's play, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Instead of performing in drag, the actors in female roles dress as those in male roles, with only modest accents such as jewelry or a headband to distinguish them. Realistically, though, with the fair amount of nudity and frank sexual situations here -- no one younger than 18 will be admitted -- it's unlikely the audience will keep regarding any of the actors as women for very long. However you see the female characters, their essences come through in this fine if, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, patience-testing production. Johnson plays the alpha female, the Marquise de Merteuil. Christopher Henley is her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont. Among the innocents they seek to ruin for sport are Cecile (a perfectly vacant Brent Stansell) and the married Marie de Tourvel (Peter Klaus). The cast is all strong, with Henley and Johnson most fetching in their characters' wretchedness, and the production is smooth overall.

-- 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. 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.

-- P.M.

THE MIRACLE WORKER -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sept. 11)

The Olney Theatre Center opens its new performance space with Artistic Director Jim Petosa directing William Gibson's play about the deaf and blind Helen Keller and her miracle-working tutor, Annie Sullivan. The company makes a thoroughly professional job of it, yet it's a curious choice because the company performed the same play in 1992. Yes, Gibson's drama is an invitation to audiences of all ages, and bringing Carolyn Pasquantonio and MaryBeth Wise back as the young Keller and the indomitable Sullivan is a sweet nod to tradition. It's also a chance for Petosa and company to explore an untested space with a text they know well. But it hardly says, "Look what we can do now," since they did it before, even if not with the intellectualized Gothic flair they bring to it this time around. Regardless of approach, the play rests in the hands of the two lead actresses -- often literally, given the urgent signing that goes on. The acting in this case has been road tested, and for the most part it shows. Petosa gingerly explores the playing area, sending one actor to the floor by the front row and another up a ladder coming from a trap door. Some of the experiments are rather conspicuous, but many of Petosa's stage pictures are lovely. As the emotion of the piece finally takes over, it becomes possible at last to stop thinking about the sheer fact of the new theater, and to begin to enjoy it.

-- Nelson Pressley

THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND and ENERGUMEN -- (By Longacre Lea Productions at Catholic University through Sept. 4)

At first glance, this double bill seems an odd couple: On the one hand, we have the Tom Stoppard comedy "The Real Inspector Hound." On the other, a paranoid satire by Mac Wellman, whose works are frequently cryptic and language-focused. Artistic Director Kathleen Akerley's yoking of these one-acts highlights their common denominators -- a reveling in words, an obsession with role-playing, a relish for sending ideas rocketing about. Unfortunately, the acting and direction don't match the ingenuity of the Stoppard-Wellman pairing itself, so audiences may find sitting through the nearly three-hour production something of a chore. Of the two pieces, Wellman's receives far more stylish treatment. Set in Washington in the Reagan era, it follows a deprogrammer's attempt to liberate a young woman from a cult run by a cynical mystic. Gradually, the deprogrammer finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that reeks of capitalist greed. With its thriller plot, this is one of Wellman's more accessible plays, so it's commendable that this production manages to be relatively suspenseful without losing the enigmatic contours that are quintessential Wellman. However, the acting and pacing deteriorate distressingly in Stoppard's dizzying send-up of detective stories and theater critics. Michael Glenn and Jason Stiles muster moments of occasional flair as the self-absorbed reviewers Birdboot and Moon, but at other points they rush their lines, muddying Stoppard's jokes. Moreover, many of the staging choices give the scenes a breathless fussiness, where understatement would be more effective. However, Matthew Soule's subdued designs succeed particularly in his "Energumen" set. These are plays in which a word is worth a thousand pictures.

-- Celia Wren

THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Warehouse through Sunday)

Peter Shaffer's 1964 epic about the conquest of Peru finds the Washington Shakespeare Company in vintage form. Shaffer's vision is Shakespearean in pitch and scale, with Spanish conquistadors and Inca warriors squaring off in a play that shakes its fist at God. Director Steven Scott Mazzola adroitly seizes each opportunity for pomp and pageantry, and the bigger the scenes, the better the staging. The original music by Mariano Vales, rich with mournful Peruvian flavor and sometimes sung by three women who form a kind of wandering chorus, adds to the sense of cinematic sweep. Conscience, religion and even political systems are all under scrutiny here. Pizarro claims Peru's dazzling riches for Spain and spearheads the advance of Christianity, but Shaffer imagines a conquistador who begins to question his own claims of moral superiority once he observes the Incas' peaceable agrarian society and enlightened sun king. The show may be a textbook case of overreaching, but it's hardly a foolish or embarrassing stretch. Under Mazzola's guidance the quest is always noble, and glory is nearly in sight.

-- N.P.

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.

-- P.M.