LEADING LADIES -- (At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 23)
Like one of those flea market purveyors of mock antiques, Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig possesses an uncanny ability to make new things seem old. The latest case in point is "Leading Ladies," an undemanding, knee-jerk comedy making its regional debut. As staged by Mark Rucker, the production exhibits the mechanical efficiency of a well-staffed hotel, but the show presupposes so little sophistication by the audience that it turns the yuks into something cheaper than cheap. "Leading Ladies" follows the exploits of a pair of masculine-looking men (played by Ian Kahn and JD Cullum) who fool the seriously gullible inhabitants of York, Pa., into believing they're women. Hasn't this been done to death? If you've got it in you to chuckle yet again at guys in wigs and frilly get-ups, don't let me stand in your way. All others: You've been warned.
-- Peter Marks
KING LEAR -- (At Center Stage in Baltimore through Nov. 6)
It isn't only his remorseless daughters, Goneril and Regan, who want to cut King Lear down to size. Directors have a hankering these days for characters in Shakespeare who resemble the rest of us, in all our ordinariness. Ordinary is the operative word for this modern-dress "King Lear." In fact, dull would be more apt. Irene Lewis directs this production, in which the actors playing Lear, Edmund and Cordelia forge no urgent bonds with one another, resulting in an extra-dry rendition. Stephen Markle's Lear embodies none of the royal arrogance, or even the petulant need, that would explain his explosive anger at Cordelia, the daughter who fails to fawn when he offers her a slice of his kingdom. Heidi Armbruster's Cordelia has a warrior-like quality that leaves little room for soft, daughterly affection. And although Jon David Casey's Edmund is physically imposing, he spends more time giving the audience the fisheye than creating a compellingly dislikable blackguard.
PAPER MOON: REMEMBER HAROLD ARLEN -- (By the In Series at Source Theatre through Oct. 15)
A fair idea of the versatility and sheer genius of Harold Arlen can be had, by those who know vintage American song, just from the titles in the opening medley of this tribute to him. The songs, sung solo or in ensemble by a quartet, were "Blues in the Night," "I've Got the World on a String," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "That Old Black Magic" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Any one of them could win its composer a secure place in the annals; to have them poured out one after another is a breathtaking display of high-level musical productivity. And that is only the beginning. The show features 23 songs that explore the gamut of human emotions from wild euphoria to deep depression. There are a few novelties and many songs right from the heart, written in collaboration with outstanding lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin. The singers, accompanied by piano and percussion, have all had operatic experience, and it shows.
-- Joseph McLellan
T BONE N WEASEL -- (At Rep Stage at Howard Community College through Saturday)
Jon Klein's cartoon of a play takes two low-grade criminals (Joseph Andrew Mills III as T Bone and Timothy Andres Pabon as Weasel) on a slapdash journey through racist and opportunist America. At every stop they bump into a colorful someone, a gallery of supporting characters -- all played entertainingly by Peter Wray and all called The Man, conjuring up that vague presence that keeps the underclass down. Blacks particularly: T Bone is African American, the smarter of the two, and he's constantly perturbed that Weasel -- his hapless white-boy sidekick -- never quite sees a pattern to the misfortunes in their lives. This production, directed by Jackson Phippin, never really gets out of first gear, primarily because of sluggish, earnest leading performances.
-- Nelson Pressley
UPSHOT -- (By Forum Theatre & Dance at the Church Street Theater through Nov. 6)
Suppose you were the last person on Earth after a nuclear holocaust, free to do what you please, even to creep into the Oval Office. That's the vision teased out in the bold but exasperating new play by Israeli American writer Ami Dayan. Directed by Shirley Serotsky, "UpShot" launches with a stark image of Man (Jason Lott), a thoughtful fellow who, in the aftermath of cataclysm, indulges in games of Russian roulette. Lott flings himself into the role with such gusto that the narrative acquires a suspenseful urgency. All that end-of-humanity stuff, it turns out, is merely the brainchild of a cash-strapped playwright, John (Scott Graham), who neglects his supportive wife, Helen (Adrienne Nelson), and infant son. John soon finds himself facing his protagonist, Man. As the piece spirals off into meta realm, it pauses now and then for tiresome scenes of domestic wrangling. Admittedly, Graham and Nelson are likable and energetic. Still, by the end, the narrative feels so contrived it's hard to care.
-- Celia Wren
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 -- playing Justin, the son of Ashley, who was murdered in their basement -- 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 that aren't believable.
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. Leading lady Angela Reed is 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. Director Blake Robison has surrounded her with actors with fine ears for the cynical as well as sentimental strains of the text.
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 is daring in its unvarnished treatment of the horror in the story. 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 as a demon who goes passionately for the jugular. In Tsikurishvili's menacing, agile embodiment, he is the Dracula of melodrama, and the story is emphatically of the good-and-evil variety, of the havoc he wreaks and the efforts of God-fearing men to stop him.
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, and 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.
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. 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. When Linden's play finally gets around to what Juliette saw in Rwanda, Starnes is devastating.
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. The amusing trifle is rendered all the more entertaining by Karen Jadlos Shotts as Theda. Playing the straight man, Mark Adams has the same appalled, baffled gaze for most of the production. While not giving Vito subtlety, Adams helps keep the zaniness clocking along under Ellen Dempsey's good-humored direction.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 ensemble's actions are so intrusive that they infuse scenes with unnecessary melodrama and goofiness.
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 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 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," turned 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.
-- Tim Page
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. 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.