Mini Reviews

Opening

GRANDMA GOES TO HOLLYWOOD -- (By Big Apple Circus at Dulles Town Center through Oct. 10)

You never know what you'll see when the big top comes to town. And even though the Big Apple Circus's latest show isn't offering an especially eye-popping collection of acts, there is still plenty to delight the child within (or sitting beside you). Does a circus need a theme? This one uses the movies, but it hardly matters: it's not as if the jugglers here juggle cans of film, though some fluffy dogs do their bizarre leaping/sliding/dancing bit accompanied by a jazzed-up "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Hollywood music ripples through the show, played by a plucky little orchestra and occasionally sung by a Broadway-style belter named Kathy Halenda. The niftiest act has to be the Anhui Troupe, a collection of Chinese acrobats who catapult one another into the air off a teeterboard (basically a see-saw). The clowning isn't great, yet the comedians manage to pull laughs out of scenarios that don't seem all that promising. The show as a whole never threatens to become awesome -- it's mostly very nice -- but, still, it's an honest-to-goodness circus.

-- Nelson Pressley

I VESPRI SICILIANI -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 4)

By all rights, Giuseppe Verdi's "The Sicilian Vespers" ought to be better-known than it is. This five-act opera is filled with Verdi's usual virtues -- sturdy melodies, sumptuous ensembles, fierce dramatic intelligence and plentiful opportunities for a stage director to indulge in spectacle. Yet it is more highly regarded among musicians and scholars than it has ever been by the general public. Now the Washington National Opera has endeavored to give it a fresh chance, with a creative production, a solid cast and the influential advocacy of General Director Placido Domingo, who not only conducted the work but chose it to open the company's 50th-anniversary season at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. There is a great deal to admire in "Vespri" -- indeed, perhaps a bit too much of it. Its story is ludicrous even by Verdian standards, so the opera feels curiously padded, although the music is of such high quality that it would be a difficult task to decide what should be trimmed.

-- Tim Page

TRILOGY: DOMINGO & GUESTS IN THREE ACTS -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 9)

Anybody interested in the art of opera should make a point of listening to Placido Domingo whenever, wherever and whatever he sings. At the age of 64, Domingo continues to "have it all" -- a tenor voice of noble dimensions, clarion power and astonishing freshness; supreme musical and dramatic intelligence; and a stage persona that exudes both heroic magnetism and easy charm. "Trilogy" consists of Act 2 of Umberto Giordano's "Fedora," Act 4 of Giuseppe Verdi's last great tragedy, "Otello," and a lighthearted, radically rearranged Act 3 from Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," transformed into a platform for showpieces and a few one-liners. It's the sort of program that tends to drive audiences wild and critics a little bit crazy. However, the selection from "Otello" may be the finest single act I've ever heard from the Washington National Opera -- amazing music, without a wasted note, conducted with a mixture of epic sweep and moment-to-moment tenderness by the company's superb music director, Heinz Fricke.

-- T.P.

Continuing

AFTER ASHLEY -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Oct. 9)

The big, bad media traffic in tragedy. One day, your personal horror story is a source of private anguish; the next day, you're babbling to Nancy Grace. The literary agents come knocking and -- oh, you'd heard? So where does that leave a ticketholder for this Gina Gionfriddo comedy about the big, bad media? Holding a ticket to a run-of-the-mill satire. With the exception of a fine central performance by young Mark Sullivan, this production packs all the oomph of last month's news. Gionfriddo gets off a fusillade of decent one-liners, but director Lee Mikeska Gardner's staging is off. The tone of hysteria established in the first scene sets the comedy on a ludicrous course, and you're asked to identify with characters who aren't believable. After his mother, Ashley (Marni Penning), is raped and murdered in their basement, Sullivan's Justin Hammond has his grieving interrupted by adults who want to cash in on the attendant sympathy. His father, Alden (Bruce Nelson), a Washington Post reporter, has the questionable inspiration of writing a book about his wife, in which he whitewashes her drug and emotional problems. If outrage at the idea of merchandising grief strikes a chord, the emotional underpinnings of "After Ashley" seem overly synthetic.

-- P.M.

CAMILLE -- (At Round House Theatre through Oct. 9)

Put aside your instincts about the shopworn aspects of the story of the tubercular courtesan and the callow, patrician Parisian who adores her. This new adaptation by Neil Bartlett of the 19th-century novel "La Dame aux Camelias" is free of stodginess. It breathes and moves, tracking the parallel advances of Marguerite Gautier's withering disease and an onset of humility. Choices by Blake Robison, the theater's new producing artistic director, all work to his advantage, from the intriguing perspectives of James Kronzer's vast parlor-room set to the eye-catching frippery of Rosemary Pardee's costumes. Robison's secret weapon, though, is a leading lady, Angela Reed, incapable of a false note. Her Marguerite is the sort of puzzle one would expect of an infamous woman of her age. ("Camille" is based on a woman with whom author Alexandre Dumas, son and namesake of the creator of "The Three Musketeers," had an affair.) Reed seems at once hard and soft, assured and insecure, mercenary and generous. The director has surrounded her with actors with fine ears for the cynical as well as sentimental strains of the text. The story, of course, takes on some of the more mundane trappings of a tearjerker, but the staging remains meaty even when the circumstances grow soapy.

-- Peter Marks

THE DISPUTATION -- (By Theater J at DCJCC's Goldman Theater through Sunday)

Anyone feeling residual guilt over Sunday school lessons skipped long ago might consider the makeup class masquerading as a play these days at Theater J. But only if the guilt is really, really, really getting to you. Otherwise, you'd be advised not to subject yourself to "The Disputation," a gassy-stuffy costume drama in which solemn characters debate the status of the Messiah and whether Jews have the right to practice their religion. The play was written by Hyam Maccoby, a British professor who died last year, and his creaky approach to illustrating history suggests a well-informed amateur playwright at sea in any forum outside academia. The production has one unlikely thing going for it: the presence of renowned actor-entertainer Theodore Bikel, a hale and handsome octogenarian clearly relishing his role as a rabbi in the Barcelona of 1263 who is called on to defend his people against a fired-up Catholic Church. Director Nick Olcott surrounds Bikel with an impressive array of local talent, including Edward Gero, Naomi Jacobson and Andrew Long. But none of these actors transcends the limited material.

-- P.M.

DRACULA -- (By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum, through Oct. 23)

When he declares, "I am Dra-kooo-laah!" Paata Tsikurishvili sounds as if he means it. A native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the actor and artistic director of Synetic Theatre speaks English with an exotic intonation -- and for once, it pays dividends. Many things about this new adaptation, in fact, work to the company's -- and the audience's -- advantage. Directed by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina, this version of the Bram Stoker classic -- daring in its unvarnished treatment of the horror in the story -- plays to the troupe's gymnastic strengths. And the script by Jonathan Leveck, a former company member, is the best Synetic has worked with in some time. Synetic has in mind neither romanticism nor kitsch in its portrayal of Dracula. What you see is what you get: a demon who goes passionately for the jugular. No effort is made to give him redeeming qualities. In Tsikurishvili's menacing, agile embodiment, he is the Dracula of melodrama, and the story Synetic seeks to tell is emphatically of the good-and-evil variety, of the havoc he wreaks and the efforts of God-fearing men to stop him.

-- P.M.

FLYIN' WEST -- (By True Colors Theatre Company at the Lincoln Theatre through Sunday)

Melodrama gets a good name in Pearl Cleage's flamboyant frontier saga. The show features a dastardly villain and heroic women who wrap themselves in the bold cloth of identity politics. It's sentimental, manipulative and hard to resist. Director Andrea Frye and her ensemble know when to pluck at the heartstrings and how to make the audience gasp in outrage. The twist in this Western is that the good-guy cowboys are African American women, who have fled lawless Memphis to homestead in Kansas. The tone is set the moment the play begins as Sophie Washington, the oldest of three sisters who is played with gruff wariness by the petite Crystal Fox, cocks her rifle one-handed and scans the horizon for danger. It comes in the form of Sophie's mulatto brother-in-law, Frank Charles, a dandy, a poet, a reckless gambler who likes to pass for white while distancing himself from his wife, Minnie, the youngest sister. The comic relief is reliably effective, the dialogue is bright and the reflective speeches are engaging.

-- Nelson Pressley

I HAVE BEFORE ME A REMARKABLE DOCUMENT GIVEN TO ME BY A YOUNG LADY FROM RWANDA -- (By African Continuum Theatre Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, through Oct. 9)

Sonja Linden's quirky drama ultimately lives up to the title, which promises an eyewitness account of mankind at its worst. But it takes its own sweet time. For most of its 90 minutes, "Young Lady" is one of those quaint pieces in which a mismatched man and woman find their way toward each other. Juliette is the young lady from Rwanda, a refugee in London who lost her family in the 1994 genocide. Simon is the rumpled Brit manning the social services office Juliette wanders into. He's a moderately recognized poet and frustrated novelist now reduced to tutoring refugees trying to write about their experiences. Simon and Juliette are nervous, and Linden puts that subtext right on top. Is this really going to be a romance? Despite the fact that Simon is married and significantly older, that Juliette is clearly still traumatized and that their experiences are poles apart? It would be unfair to give away the ending, but the cliched waltz stops short of being embarrassing, thanks to Linden's eventual attention to higher matters and to sharp, understated acting from Michael Glenn and Deidra LaWan Starnes. (Almost everything about director KenYatta Rogers's staging is restrained and well judged.) When Linden's play finally gets around to what Juliette saw in Rwanda, Starnes is devastating; at last the writing and the performance are equally vivid and urgent.

-- N.P.

IT HAD TO BE YOU -- (By American Century Theater at Gunston Arts Center through Oct. 8)

If you're going to be held hostage after a first date, it might as well be by Theda Blau, the wacky platinum-blonde who is the heroine of American Century Theater's season opener. A Bronx-bred vegan who says things like "The moment I met you, my crystals glowed," Theda has appeared in "Brides of the Werewolves" and other seminal movies and is cheerily sweating over her next project: writing a six-act epic about a Russian aristocrat who gets crucified upside down. In other words, she has nothing in common with a suave, wealthy director-producer named Vito Pignoli -- with the result that the two meet cute one Christmas Eve and wind up bantering in Theda's apartment, where she hides his clothes. The path of true love never did run smooth, and it sure doesn't in this two-hour antic, which husband-and-wife showbiz team Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor based loosely on their own romance. The amusing trifle is rendered all the more entertaining by Karen Jadlos Shotts as Theda, part aging bombshell, part brassy dragon lady, part lovable waif. Shotts lends authenticity to the character's daffy actions, such as producing a full roll of toilet paper from her handbag in lieu of Kleenex. Playing the straight man, Mark Adams has more or less the same appalled, baffled gaze for most of the production. But then he's not helped by some of the creakier plot twists that revolve around his character: a personal confession Vito trots out at one point might as well be flagged in neon: "Crucial Turning Point Here." While not imbuing Vito with subtlety, Adams helps keep the zaniness clocking along under Ellen Dempsey's good-humored direction.

-- C.W.

METAMORPHOSIS -- (By Catalyst Theatre at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through Oct. 15)

The spunky Catalyst crew might want to consider the fitness market for this wired, wearying revival. Owing primarily to a ceaselessly aerobic performance by Scott Fortier as a man who goes to bed a salesman and wakes up a bug, the production could be videotaped and sold to those who seek to exercise both body and mind. They could even call it "The Kafka Workout." Fortier struts and sweats his hour upon the stage, bringing a bracing physicality to his rendition of Gregor Samsa, the doomed hero of this scathingly surreal classic about a young man's alienation. The problem for this high-strung production is that it pushes and pushes, and never stops to catch its breath. The storytelling technique that Berkoff employs, apportioning bits of the narration to each of the characters, seems a bit passe. It contributes to the feeling that a lot of calories are being burned for precious little return.

-- P.M.

A NUMBER -- (At Studio Theatre through Oct. 16)

Here's a dilemma Miss Manners has yet to address: If you were invited to the wedding of your clone, would you be entitled to a seat with the relatives? How do you broach with your father the delicate topic of whether you were the prototype -- or just one of the knockoffs? We turn for guidance on this occasion to Caryl Churchill, who ponders in barbed and spooky fashion the wild issue of assembly-line identity in "A Number." Director Joy Zinoman dips rewardingly into the wellspring of emotional truth in one of Churchill's harsh, Pinteresque works. Zinoman has found a marvelously simpatico pair of actors, Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, who play the parent and his multiple children in a drama that is as much about the fragile bonds between fathers and sons as it is about the creation by science of ethically challenging relationships. Story has a breakout turn -- make that turns -- in his portrayal of the troubled offspring of a man who, for contemptible reasons that only slowly come into focus, has turned to the petri dish for solace and companionship.

-- P.M.

OTHELLO -- (By 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.

-- P.M.

PASSION PLAY, A CYCLE -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Oct. 16)

This startlingly original play qualifies as the benchmark of the new season. Sarah Ruhl's fluid trilogy chronicling the evolving linkage of belief, morality and politics feels like a ride through the rapids: brisk, daring, at times a bit muddy. But it confirms the emergence of a fresh and provocative voice that the theater desperately needs. Wait: Brisk, you say? The surprising fact is, this 3-hour 40-minute production -- which follows the staging of Passion plays in three politically charged eras -- does not wear an audience out. The credit goes not only to Ruhl's poetically evocative prose and a cascade of scenes moving lickety-split from one to the next, but also to the ability of director Molly Smith to put Ruhl's symbolism and images to effective use.

-- P.M.

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.

TE QUIERO, MUNECA (I LOVE YOU, DOLL) -- (By GALA Hispanic Theatre at GALA Theatre-Tivoli through Oct. 9. In Spanish with English surtitles)

Move over, Eliza Doolittle: You have some competition. Making her U.S. debut is a new incarnation of Pygmalion's Galatea, the glamorous and -- even better -- reprogrammable Nora in this futuristic comedy. The invention of contemporary Spanish playwright Ernesto Caballero, Nora can be cosmopolitan, gregarious, sexy, supportive and eager to please, and (giving her the edge on Henry Higgins's Cockney protege) she can be operated by remote control. So the only hindrances to marital bliss, as her film critic husband, Andres (Carlos Castillo), discovers, are a couple of age-old truths. First, no cease-fire has been called in the war between the sexes. And second, you can't always get what you want -- and when you do, you usually realize that you didn't really want it. A tad overgenerous with such truisms, and with some arch ironies, "Te Quiero" is not a literary masterpiece. But it has a roguish sparkle, and it's been given a terrific look and pace by director Harold Ruiz and his team of designers and actors.

-- Celia Wren

THREE HOTELS -- (By the Theater of the First Amendment at the Harris Theater, George Mason University, Fairfax, through Oct. 2)

After a break to reorganize, Theater of the First Amendment returns with Jon Robin Baitz's terse account of a good man coming to terms with the bad things he's done, a high-minded indictment of Americans' profiteering in the Third World. Baitz tells the story, which first appeared in the early '90s, in three winding monologues -- the first and third by Kenneth Hoyle, a middle-aged executive who specializes in firing people, and the middle one by his bitter wife, Barbara. Each takes place in a different hotel. Hoyle's company peddles questionable baby formula to hapless mothers, a dubious but profitable enterprise. Hoyle is too bright not to be aware of the ethical implications, and Kevin Murray exudes nervousness and sublimated guilt from the moment this weasel starts talking. If Hoyle is anguished, his wife is furious. The two characters never share the stage, and you never get a visceral sense of where they ever connected emotionally or intellectually. That may be in part because husband and wife are both grieving for a son whose demise, as Baitz conceives it, is almost clinically ironic, and their own sharp breakup is happening before our eyes. Though it never quite lands with the authority Baitz clearly reaches for, "Three Hotels" is a smarter-than-average play that feels like a bit of a brainteaser as you watch.

-- N.P.

THE TRIAL -- (By Scena Theatre at the Warehouse Theatre through Oct. 15)

The staging of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" commences with an unnerving image: an empty wooden chair starkly illuminated by bare bulbs that emphasize the prisonlike bleakness of the brick walls. The scene has a desolate quality that seems right for Kafka's nightmarish vision of a heartless, logic-free justice system. Unfortunately the chilling ambiance pretty much dissipates once the cast stalks onstage, with Joseph K (Christopher Henley) in the center and the ensemble stationed in an arc of surrounding chairs. As K's hideous adventure swings into motion, the actors participate ostentatiously in the evocation of the environment. They make odd noises to create the soundscape of a city and they flail away at imaginary typewriters to suggest the bank where K works. They whisper the word "guilt" -- just in case you hadn't gotten the story's general drift. The goal is presumably to set a tone of paranoid wonder while supplying a bit of bare-bones-theater magic. But the ensemble's actions are so intrusive that they have the opposite effect, infusing scenes with unnecessary melodrama and even goofiness. Steven Berkoff's adaptation has a long track record, but the approach does not function well in director Robert McNamara's staging.

-- C.W.

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.

-- P.M.