OTHELLO -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre Company through Oct. 30)
Patrick Page is nothing if not resourceful, and what the actor cooks up for his final exit in Michael Kahn's unadorned new "Othello" tells you heaps about his scabrous Iago. The bodies of Desdemona and Othello lie together in bed; the body of Iago's wife is splayed on the floor beside them. As guards lead him out of the bedchamber, Page's Iago can't take his eyes off his victims. The gaze is carnal, reflective of some indecent appetite. A small, arresting moment such as this attests to the intelligence guiding the production. In this faithful, straightforward rendition, Kahn offers unfettered access to actors and text. This is not a paucity of imagination, but a veteran director's way of paying respect. The result is an "Othello" at all times engrossing, and yet ultimately less than devastating. It's hard to say whether the muted impact is Kahn's responsibility or Shakespeare's. Even if the sorrows of "Othello" do not play out here in pounding waves, satisfying ripples remain in the unmasking of affable Iago, betrayed by the wife he has all but discarded. The face of evil is, it seems, all the more startling when it looks like the guy next door.
-- Peter Marks
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.
THE MIRACLE WORKER -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)
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 SAND STORM: STORIES FROM THE FRONT -- (At MetroStage through Sept. 25)
In former Marine Sean Huze's earnest piece of reportage with theatrical aspirations, the geography is less the violence-racked Middle East than the treacherous reaches of the human psyche. In 10 monologues over the course of 70 minutes, Huze's servicemen relate disturbing anecdotes set during the current Iraq conflict. But the narratives' shock value draws less on the gory detail than on the insight of the characters: With a certain predictability, each harrowing event leads the GI to acknowledge the limits of his compassion -- and the lengths of his callousness. Unfortunately the power of the work is somewhat undermined by the baldness of the presentation, as Huze prods the characters into the spotlight to update the age-old truth that war is hell. Further handicapping Huze's good intentions, not all of the actors are able to ground the monologues in a convincing personality, so as to make them seem less jerry-built. Director Brett Smock channels the production starkly, introducing the servicemen in a particularly effective light-and-shadows tableau right at the start. But the aesthetic touches don't gussy up the bleakness of the message: In the brooding words of Cpl. Rodriguez, "Maybe some of us are walking dead, soulless shells of the men we once were." You can't get much more blunt than that.
-- Celia Wren
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.
URINETOWN -- (At Signature Theatre through Oct. 16)
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.