CAVALIA -- (Under the White Big Top at Army Navy Drive and S. Fern Street in Pentagon City through Nov. 15)
The relationship between man and animal is romanticized to the hilt in this lovely, spacey horse show created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle. Horse buffs will ooh and aah at the fine-tuned maneuvers pulled off by a team of gorgeous steeds who share the scene with acrobats, aerialists and arena-scale multimedia effects, all wrapped in a dense, insistently pretty aesthetic. The best moments of this busy extravaganza aren't the sensational ones; what lingers are the subtleties, the tranquility, the sensation of letting certain expectations go.
-- Nelson Pressley
IF WE ARE WOMEN -- (At Washington Stage Guild through Nov. 27)
Canadian playwright Joanna McClelland Glass's 1993 drama takes its title from a Virginia Woolf quote -- "We think back through our mothers, if we are women" -- and is indeed apt. "Women's" two-plus hours is nearly all backward-looking conversation among Jessica (Lynn Steinmetz), her farm-raised, illiterate mother, Ruth (June Hansen), her ex-husband's highbrow, Jewish mom, Rachel (Jewell Robinson), and Jessica's 18-year-old daughter, Polly (Sarah Fischer), with their various takes on love and life spurred not only by Martin's death, but by Polly's failure to come home after a school dance the night before. While sitting on Tracie Duncan's pastel-painted deck or preparing food, the women (men are only mentioned, never onstage) talk mostly about the opportunities, or lack thereof, their different upbringings afforded them and lament some of the choices they've made as adults. "Women's" biggest fault lies in the frequently unnatural dialogue. McClelland takes a winding, rocky road to get to the emotional finale, but at least the destination is satisfying.
-- Tricia Olszewski
PORGY AND BESS -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 19)
The early death of George Gershwin -- from a brain tumor, at the age of 38 -- was nothing short of a calamity for American music. Here, if anywhere, was just the composer who might have united all of the strains that made up our fertile and wondrously polyglot mid-20th century musical culture -- jazz, blues, popular song, European classical stylings, modernist experimentation. This loving, sumptuous and creative mounting of Gershwin's most ambitious work should be seen and heard by anybody with an interest in our creative heritage, of course, while it also ought to win some new friends for opera in general. Nobody has ever mistaken "Porgy" for perfect opera, despite its great tunes, conducted here by Wayne Marshall. It is long; it is also a compendium of racial stereotypes. However, in director Francesca Zambello's production, the power and gravity of the story comes through.
-- Tim Page
SAVE THE LEOPARD -- (By Spooky Action Theater at Flashpoint through Sunday)
This drama by T.J. Edwards spans 10 years, starting with the blind date that set up thoroughly Type A Diana (Alison Weisgall) with Leo (Seth Alcorn), who turns into an animal-conservation zealot. The story is allegedly an opposites-attract romance, but really it's a diatribe disguised as a play. After sporadically running into each other every year or so -- with Leo getting more passionate about his cause as time goes by -- the pair eventually team up. Once the couple is united, however unrealistically, in the fight to save leopards, Edwards takes the opportunity to have each vomit statistics on extinctions and other environmental issues in the form of several speeches to various boards. If Diana's egotistical logorrhea doesn't give you a headache, the numbers will.
STRING FEVER -- (By Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center through Nov. 27)
Sometimes, the calculus of love is as difficult to get a handle on as quantum physics. Lily (Melinda Wade), the heroine of Jacquelyn Reingold's sweet, brainy comedy, is 40 and single and anxious. But what should she do about it? Reingold tosses into her amusing romantic stew everything from etiquette to mortality, and the result is a gentle examination of issues prosaic as well as profound. Lily's gruff father (Conrad Feininger) is in the grips of a spirit-sapping divorce, while her best friend discovers that she has cancer. "String Fever" does not pretend to be groundbreaking, yet the playwright has enough of a way with words to give the 90-minute comedy a pleasant voice of its own. And the mixing in of science -- Lily's newest lover, a physicist, is an expert on string theory -- provides an engaging motif for Reingold's take on the chaos and randomness of the mating game. At times, Peg Denithorne's direction underlines an artificial quality in Reingold's storytelling. But the production offers some enjoyable performances, and Reingold fills the stage with refreshing musing about the ways we all struggle to string together lives, one challenging strand after another.
-- Peter Marks
THE BEARD OF AVON -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo through Nov. 20)
To a question literary detectives love to chew on -- who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? -- the playwright Amy Freed offers a delightfully unscholarly answer: Everybody! After naive Will Shakspere (Grady Weatherford) leaves his wife for a theater troupe in London, a jaded earl (Eric Singdahlson) persuades Will to be his theatrical beard. The twist is that Singdahlson's Edward De Vere is a master of plot but has no common touch, while Will is able to speak from the heart with a simple grace. Director Jessica Burgess and a well-drilled cast, led by the winning Grady Weatherford as Will, tackle their assignments with ravenous pleasure. Freed's comedy binds academic satire and lowbrow slapstick, and the sweet intimacy of Rorschach's staging serves the silly story.
THE BEGINNING OF SUMMER -- (By Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer's Center in Bethesda through Nov. 20)
This is fevered Southern gothic at its drawling, hand-wringing worst, Horton Foote's middle play of a trilogy involving hard-shelled Mamie Borden. The first act is fueled by liquor and then the threat of bloodshed; it's crude and repetitive, and director Jack Sbarbori's cast isn't quite up to it. Exactly how the frail, aging Mamie (Jane Squier Bruns) is supposed to plausibly restrain her drunk and vengeful husband, Albert (Steve LaRocque), is something Sbarbori and the actors haven't quite worked out. Everybody fares better in the second act, when dawn approaches and Foote's mellowing characters begin to work their way toward reconciliation.
THE BODY PROJECT -- (By Horizons Theatre at the Warehouse Theater through Nov. 13)
This extremely well-intentioned but tedious piece of awareness-raising theatre, written and directed by Leslie Jacobson and Vanessa Thomas, incorporates material gleaned from interviews with local women and consists of anecdotes featuring characters who have little personality beyond their situations. There's the aging actress; the bulimic; the overweight girl who's shunned by her peers; the overweight mother who's shunned by her daughter; and so on. Admittedly, if the show provokes useful public discussion about female self-consciousness, the effort of the creators will not have been in vain. But for a more artful take on the phenomenon, you could just open an issue of Glamour magazine.
-- Celia Wren
BORN YESTERDAY -- (At Arena Stage through Sunday)
Set somewhere between fantasy and reality in postwar Washington, Garson Kanin's agreeably mainstream political comedy is set in motion when a brutish junkyard magnate named Harry Brock (Jonathan Fried) installs himself in a Washington hotel with bags of cash and a wily chorus girl, Billie Dawn (Suli Holum). Director Kyle Donnelly smoothly manages to balance the comedy-with-a-conscience elements with the play's embrace of the lighter side of corruption. Arena clearly wants us to think about what's changed in Washington in six decades, and what hasn't. Billie Dawn may have gotten the best of her larcenous lover. But year in and year out, it seems, new Harry Brocks just keep on coming.
BRIGHT IDEAS -- (By Didactic Theatre Company at D.C. Arts Center through Nov. 13)
Eric Coble's gleeful black comedy revels in a vision of the nurturing instinct gone haywire with a romp through the saga of Genevra and Joshua Bradley (Kristy Powers and Leo Goodman), anxious parents of a 3-year-old boy, whom they are resolved to shower with every possible advantage. At the top of their list is enrolling little Mac in Bright Ideas preschool, but he's still stuck on the waiting list, so the fretting couple take matters into their own hands, with dire and downright Shakespearean results. Director Christopher Carroll has coaxed the Didactic production onto an enjoyably hyperbolic track, maximizing Coble's wicked lampooning of the parenting industry.
BUILDING A BOAT -- (By Charter Theatre at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts through Sunday)
Hugh, the central character in Peter Coy's new drama, is still in love with his bitter ex-wife, doesn't want to have anything to do with their disturbed teenage son, and is wracked with guilt over the testimony he gave which landed his business partner in prison. And then, things get bad. This play has enough melodrama for several lifetimes. Hugh (Kevin Adams) is a damaged, solitary sort who is hoping he'll find some catharsis in building a small sailboat. He's kept company by Conn (Michael Skinner), an increasingly irritating character who, it's murkily suggested, only exists in Hugh's head. The play is more successful when it flashes back to happier times, when Hugh was still married to Deirdre (Hope Lambert). The most compelling scenes here, however, are between Hugh and his son, Michael (Denman Anderson). As the play's end draws nearer, its initial long-windedness and grab bag of issues get streamlined into a strong family drama, but not enough to save the unevenness of the work.
THE CHAIRS -- (At Round House Theatre Silver Spring through Sunday)
The clutter in this limply antic revival of Eugene Ionesco's play is not simply a function of the wall of furniture that towers over the stage. The whole enterprise is overstuffed with shtick: silly accents, clownish gestures, breathless racing to and fro. The pair of actors who ham their way through much of the production brush only the surface of the classic absurdist comedy, about the desperate hollowness of life and the rituals we poignantly devise to fill it. As imagined by Alain Timar, the play has a loopy, collegiate air. The characters are supposed to be ancient, but Timar casts youthful Marcus Kyd and Jessica Browne-White as the eternally married couple who have devised a grand evening for the visit of an invited speaker. We see only the dozens and dozens of chairs they haul out as the evening progresses. The husband and wife, however, are deeply occupied in small talk and fawning over their invisible guests, dignitaries who have come to listen to the speaker's edifying pearls. Timar's three-dimensional backdrop, a vast wall of every sort of chair you can think of, is inspired, but the props never amount to much more than an assortment of vacant seats.
DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN -- (At Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre through Nov. 27)
Comedian Rob Becker made a killing by sharply packaging shopworn observations in the 1990s as his one-man show toured the country and then became the longest-running solo show in Broadway history. Becker's stage persona was pretty irresistible; he melded stereotypes and archetypes in a way that captured the country's fascination with pop psychology. A number of actors have assumed Becker's role in touring productions; Kevin Burke is the new star of this one. Some of the material remains sure-fire, and Becker's explorations are not without droll insights.
FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN -- (At MetroStage through Nov. 27)
The usual rule is that when a son writes a play about his mother, she should look out. But Canadian writer Michel Tremblay goes against convention in the mannerly and sentimental two-character play. It's an adoring memoir, and Tremblay's affection is so complete that he gives his mother the stage in every conceivable way. Tremblay keeps himself -- the narrator, that is -- well out of the way, at least until Tremblay unveils his nifty little coup de theatre at the end. Bruce M. Holmes plays the son, and for almost the entire 90 minutes he sits on one side of the stage and listens as Catherine Flye chatters and scolds and dominates conversations as only an iron-willed mother can. Tremblay writes about the narrator/son in his formative years, as he grows from a teenager old enough to talk back a little to a young man old enough to be out on his own. Flye's a hoot, full of righteous criticism and vivid detail. The best part of "For the Pleasure" is the sly revelation of what this relationship led to: the subtle exchange of cynical critical distance for openhearted, wide-ranging imagination.
KING LEAR -- (At Center Stage in Baltimore through Sunday)
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.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- (At Folger Theatre through Nov. 27)
Director Nick Hutchinson's World War II-era makeover of Shakespeare's eternally delicious battle of the sexes -- with big band sounds and khaki uniforms -- is atmospheric if pedestrian, retaining the bard's rhyme and meter and leaving the rest to props and wardrobe. Aside from Kate Eastwood Norris's graceful and accomplished Beatrice and Jim Zidar's deadpan Dogberry, the cast is sorely tested by the play. The actors are further hamstrung by the conceit that divides Shakespeare's Italian characters into American officers and British aristocrats, and shifts the scene from Messina to the grounds of an English country home just after peace is declared. Norris's Beatrice, an English rose, has her eye on Yankee officer Benedick (P.J. Sosko), but both are too proud to make the first move. Meanwhile, the malicious Don John (Jim Jorgensen) is determined to wreck the nuptials of Claudio (Dean Alai) to Hero (Tiffany Fillmore). Newcomers to Shakespeare may be those most charmed by the you-pick-the-period approach to his work.
PSYCHIC GHOST THEATRE -- (At Psychic Ghost Theatre through Nov. 26)
In the converted space of a building in Wheaton where a Gypsy fortune teller once plied her cons, the Psychic Ghost Theatre has materialized. There, Barry Taylor and partner Susan Kang levitate, float glasses and dice, pull a scarf through a pole, make a pigeon turn into confetti -- all within 15 feet of the audience. (Note that no one younger than 18 is admitted.) The opportunity to see magic done this close is a luxury. Psychic Ghost Theatre's show is in three parts. The first is a more or less straightforward exhibition of conjuring. The second is the re-creation of a 19th-century "spirit cabinet." The third is a seance, complete with Ouija board and maleficent spirit. Close as you're sitting, you can't catch any of the tricks. It all looks like . . . well, like magic.
-- Lloyd Rose
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.
UPSHOT -- (By Forum Theatre & Dance at the Church Street Theater through Sunday)
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.
YOU ARE HERE -- (By Theatre Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Nov. 13)
Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor has a flair for characterization and an ear for the comic idiosyncrasies of modern speech, and his ungainly novelistic canvas teems with chatty, wayward personalities. The play's mercurial protagonist is Alison, who MacIvor surrounds with a spectrum of lovers and colleagues and quirky incidental characters such as an expletive-prone gigolo and an arrogant publishing Brahmin. The interactions of this motley crew can be poignant and hilarious when matched with the kind of knockout acting in this American premiere production. Setting the tone is Jennifer Mendenhall's virtuoso rendition of Alison, a vulnerable journalist with wild mood swings. And that's no easy task, since the play's central conceit -- Alison remembering her life -- calls for numerous monologues to be self-consciously delivered directly to the audience, which Mendenhal suffuses with humor and urgency while making her character persuasively complex. It's colorful stuff, and, under Gregg Henry's direction, the performances are delectable, but one can't help feeling that, overall, "You Are Here" amounts to less than the sum of its parts.