CUTTIN' UP -- (At Arena Stage through Jan. 1)
As with "Crowns," its theatrical cousin, "Cuttin' Up" tries to get inside black America's head through a portrait of what sits on top of it, taking on African American men and the bonds they forge in the comfort of a barber's chair. The play, written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and based on a book of interviews by Craig Marberry, offers a congenial if unfocused survey of the folkways of the barbershop. Though seasoned with some lively vignettes, the play remains only a mild diversion, never quite drilling to the core of what might have been a very rich vein. It's an oddly scattered evening, segueing awkwardly between the story of the troubled marriage of a barber played by Peter Jay Fernandez and anecdotes about the ways in which black American culture and history waft in and out the barbershop doors. Like the do's of the shop's clientele, the play could stand more shape and a bit of a trim.
-- Peter Marks
YEMAYA'S BELLY -- (At Signature Theatre through Dec. 18)
The rabbit never quite gets pulled out of the hat in this warmhearted but inert bit of magic realism by Quiara Alegria Hudes. More idiosyncratic fable than universal parable, the 85-minute drama charts the journey of Jesus, a boy who dreams of fleeing his poor, unnamed Caribbean dictatorship for the lush promise of America. An erotically charged feather and a cold bottle of coke become charmed talismans in Jesus's odyssey as the themes of death, birth and reconciliation eventually wend their way through the belly of Yemaya, the Queen of the Ocean. Hudes's script continually blooms with poetic turns and illustrative stories, and some of Hudes's literary flourishes are splendid. But too often the performers blitz through Hudes's fine-spun language with little concern for meaning or personality. Director Rick DesRoches must have been seduced by the gorgeous turns of phrase, the emotional benevolence, the playfulness and wonder. But somewhere along the line, the magic he spotted on the page slipped away.
-- Nelson Pressley
THE BEARD OF AVON -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo through Dec. 10)
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 Sunday)
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.
CAVALIA -- (Under the White Big Top at Army Navy Drive and S. Fern Street in Pentagon City through Nov. 27)
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.
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 in 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 this mannerly and sentimental two-character play. It's an adoring memoir. 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 is the sly revelation of what this relationship led to: the subtle exchange of cynical critical distance for openhearted, wide-ranging imagination.
GUANTANAMO: HONOR BOUND TO DEFEND FREEDOM -- (At Studio Theatre through Dec. 11)
When an administration feels it is answerable to no one, playwrights Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo appear to be saying, why should a play have to be impartial? "Guantanamo" is a kind of tribunal, offering testimony from lawyers, human rights activists and relatives of both the detainees and those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as well as from the detainees themselves. Much of the play is consumed by the stories of three British detainees, Moazzam Begg (Kaveh Haerian), Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones) and Bisher al-Rawi (Ramiz Monsef), their paths to Cuba recounted for us simply, in talking-head style. The directness of the play is novel in a town in which an astonishing paucity of theater by the major companies attempts to talk back to power. It gives one pause, though, to reflect on the fact that only those predisposed to considering the criticisms of "Guantanamo" are the ones likely to hear them.
HAPGOOD -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse through Dec. 4)
Have you ever wanted to be in two places at the same time? The characters do it in Tom Stoppard's tricky 1988 play about love and spies during the Cold War. At least the people appear to be in two places at once. Watch carefully as the shell game starts in this perceptive, if guarded, production. The situation, in brief: The Brits are trying to pass the Russians some disinformation about the Strategic Defense Initiative, but someone's playing both sides. Hapgood (Kathleen Akerley), who's running the operation, has to sort it all out. No one does intellectual puzzlement better than Stoppard, and the deliberate mysteries of espionage suit him well. The staging of co-directors Christopher Henley and Alexandra Hoge is cautious and oddly stationary, but the acting is mostly sensible, and Akerley is a fine centerpiece. Her tactics aren't bad for handling the high-minded tomfoolery Stoppard offers here: Think. Relax. Make it look easy.
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 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
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. 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.
PORGY AND BESS -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Saturday)
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 come through.
-- Tim Page
PSYCHIC GHOST THEATRE -- (At Psychic Ghost Theatre through Dec. 31)
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.
-- 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.
A STREECAR NAMED DESIRE -- (By Keegan Theatre at the Church Street Theater through Nov. 26)
Audiences shouldn't expect a little piece of eternity to be dropped into their hands -- to invoke a line from Blanche DuBois -- but a couple of persuasive performances and intelligent direction by Eric Lucas and Mark A. Rhea make for a largely gratifying three hours. Admittedly, Kerry Waters turns in an absurdly affected depiction of Blanche, the play's disintegrating Southern belle. However, she does let the caricature thaw a bit toward the end, and the explosion of hysteria during Blanche's final confrontation with her admirer Mitch (Lucas) deserves a nod for sheer gutsiness. Fortunately, Susan Marie Rhea and Mark Rhea, who happen to be married, are vastly more plausible and engaging as Stella and Stanley Kowalski, Blanche's sister and brother-in-law. "There are very few nearly perfect plays. 'Streetcar' is one of them," playwright Robert E. Lee once asserted. Keegan's flawed but watchable "Streetcar" suggests that Williams's hothouse flower of a drama is also more sturdy than one might suspect.
-- Celia Wren
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 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 Reingold fills the stage with refreshing musing about the ways we all struggle to string together lives, one challenging strand after another.
THE VIOLET HOUR -- (By Rep Stage at Howard Community College through Sunday)
The characters in Richard Greenberg's inventive play are giddy and extravagant, prone to sweeping narcissism and visionary gestures, and you might feel as if you've encountered some of these figures before. That jaunty writer bent on dominating the literary world -- is that F. Scott Fitzgerald? And is that dizzy flapper Zelda his future wife? Sort of. In the play, they are known as Denis and Rosamund and are pushing Denis's new manuscript on fledgling publisher John Pace Seavering and hoping to bottle lightning through a book deal. They are competing with Seavering's secret lover, Jessie Brewster, an exotic chanteuse (Josephine Baker, anyone?). Greenberg writes in an unbridled, entertaining style throughout, peppering the dialogue with highbrow one-liners and allowing his characters to carry on in vast, dazzling tracts. Director Kasi Campbell has a keen appreciation for the play's changeable tone; the few missteps seem minor compared with the play's aggressive flirtation with time-tinkering tactics and its ambitious nose for the intriguing gray areas hinted at by the title.