Mini Reviews

A star ({sstar}) denotes a show recommended by our critics.

Opening PORTRAIT OF A MADONNA and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER

(By Keegan Theatre at Gunston Arts Center through Dec. 17)

An eerie feeling of deja vu might creep over you while watching Tennessee Williams's rarely staged "Portrait of a Madonna," in a double bill with the one-act "Suddenly Last Summer." This aging, sex-obsessed Southern belle (Sheri S. Herren) who's drifting into madness, clinging to her genteel illusions and acknowledging the kindness of strangers -- is she not Blanche DuBois? "Portrait," a poignant half-hour vignette first staged in 1944, is very much a dry run for the final scene in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Diffuse and underdeveloped, the sketch falls miles short of "Streetcar's" tragic grandeur, but it can be mildly interesting to spot the familiar motifs in the piece. The more watchable half of the Keegan bill is "Suddenly Last Summer," the creepy study of a New Orleans family racked by jealousy, greed and a sexual secret. This play features a woman in a state of non compos mentis: the gutsy Catharine (played by a splendid Marybeth Fritzky), whose revelations about her dead cousin, Sebastian, infuriate Sebastian's mother, Violet Venable. What makes this production most effective, though -- other than Fritzky's performance -- is the cast's focus and coordination as an ensemble, directed by Leslie A. Kobylinski. When everyone's onstage, as the melodramatic moments flow, you can sense the characters' conflicting self-interests hanging ominously in the sultry New Orleans air.

-- Celia Wren

Continuing

{sstar} THE BEARD OF AVON

(By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo through Saturday)

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.

-- Peter Marks

{sstar} THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

(At Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 8)

Come and meet those dancing feet. They fall right into step -- to the strains of, yes, "42nd Street" -- with various other madcap concoctions in this mischievously cockeyed production. Mind you, the seemingly out-of-nowhere soft-shoe does not occur until Act 2, when Douglas C. Wager's perspective-tweaking production finally finds its footing. This play, one of Shakespeare's earliest (and shortest), is a one-joke exercise in mistaken identity, and more than a little tedious early on, in the way that farces that have overly transparent complications tend to be. But Wager knows exactly what he needs to do here: Go Shakespeare's shenanigans one (or two or three) better. To wit, this production, enchanting to gaze upon thanks to set and costume designer Zack Brown, is end-loaded with ever sillier gags and cameos. Sometimes, gussying up Shakespeare succeeds only in watering him down. In this case, all the director's trickery is a treat. And more, it seems, really can make for merrier.

-- P.M.

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.

-- P.M.

DRAFT DAY

(By African Continuum Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center through Sunday)

The intriguing crux of Marvin McAllister's provocative play is that a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the fates of some gifted black men remain tucked away in another man's wallet. In a 90-minute rhetorical drama linking the two eras, McAllister draws parallels between the selling of slaves according to their African tribes and the "buying" of athletes for service to professional basketball teams. The piece is staged by Tre Garrett with an appealing lack of pretension. It is performed, too, with some flair, in particular by Marc R. Payne and G. Alvarez Reid as rival stars on the same college team who are waiting to hear whether they have been picked in the annual draft of a fictional professional basketball league. Although much of McAllister's dialogue is polished, this is not an intensely dramatic evening. Even if the destination is all too apparent, it almost always feels like a step in the right direction.

-- P.M.

{sstar} GUANTANAMO: HONOR BOUND TO DEFEND FREEDOM

(At Studio Theatre through Sunday)

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.

-- P.M.

{sstar} HAPGOOD

(By Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse through Saturday)

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 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.

-- Nelson Pressley

KINGDOM

(By African Continuum Theatre Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center through Sunday)

Playwright David Emerson Toney plays with "Richard III" the way a cat paws at a mouse -- sometimes anxiously, sometimes in frisky fun. It's not always clear what the writer's thinking: "Kingdom's" run-down barbecue joint in late 1960s Cleveland is a long way from Renaissance England, and its hero, Rickey-Trey, is the sweet-faced opposite of Shakespeare's famous killing machine. But these unexpected swipes make Toney's game an intriguing tease. Toney infuses his ambitious, if windy, drama with entertaining lines, colorful speeches, quirky characters and rough edges. Eddie-Ray (Keith Johnson), eldest of the three York brothers, is glorying in the death of a family rival. Middle brother George Clarence (Addison Switzer) is a former drunk and a rabidly reformed preacher with a congregation of five. Rickey-Trey (J.J. Johnson Jr.), Toney's substitute for Richard III's famous hunchback, has cerebral palsy and has been cloistered in the apartment above the barbecue shack for 20 years. Murder and adultery lurk in the family's twisted history, and when Eddie's long-simmering family revenge and dastardly plan to beget an heir finally elbow into full view, Toney tries to set off an explosion of Shakespearean proportions. And that's when his drama begins to snap at the seams. The bloody mess at the end is more confusing than cathartic, and the overloaded finish makes Toney's play a near-miss at an interesting target.

-- N.P.

OLIVER!

(At the Olney Theatre Center through Dec. 31)

Dark and sluggish, Lionel Bart's beloved adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist" has lost its excitability. Director Brad Watkins's production begins promisingly enough, but musical director Christopher Youstra's handling of Bart's dramatic, jubilant score is more clockwork than supple, and Ilona Kessell's choreography is similarly ginger. The show's primary spark comes from Peggy Yates, a saucy, high-spirited charmer as the doomed Nancy. Watkins apparently sees "Oliver!" as a tale fraught with danger, so he has designer Charlie Morrison keep the lights dim, as if filtered through a cloud of soot. By the second act, the theater is suffused in stage fog. The effect isn't sinister, though; it's just dreary. It's pretty elaborate, this "Oliver!," with the vast, multilevel set and a cast of about 30, but it turns out to have precious little showbiz in its soul.

-- N.P.

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.

-- P.M.

STARVING

(At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Dec. 18)

The apartment building of S.M. Shephard-Massat's play is one heck of a heartbreak house. On the first floor, there's lonely, middle-aged Archer. Across the hall is young Bettie, who hasn't a clue what her dog of a husband is up to. Above them is feisty Freida, still in mourning after all these years for the daughters she lost in a car accident, and next door to her is Rosetta, a divorced schoolteacher who has a pretty racy notion of homework. Shephard-Massat's idea in this lukewarm drama is to envelop us in early 1950s Atlanta, where a burgeoning black middle class from all over the South is making nests. What's onstage -- aside from the fabulous rendering of the building by designer Daniel Ettinger -- is a little bit Chekhov, a little bit August Wilson, a hint of the Stanley and Blanche of "A Streetcar Named Desire." In many of the vignettes, the playwright gently teases out the tensions and traumas of the apartment house and the people in its orbit. But something's missing in the web of stories Shephard-Massat threads together. In the background sights and sounds, at least, "Starving" feels fully fleshed out, but it's in the foreground where things never completely come into focus.

-- P.M.

{sstar} A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD

(At Round House Theatre Bethesda through Dec. 18)

Robert and Willie Reale's family-friendly musical presents a marshy world of sweetness and light -- a place where friendships are indissoluble and days brim with such simple pleasures as flying kites and eating cookies. The top-tier performers fling themselves into their roles with such expressiveness and gusto -- supported by Nick Olcott's witty direction and a handsome, kaleidoscopic set -- that even hardened cynics might start to feel like Dr. Dolittle. Based on the children's books by Arnold Lobel, the musical chronicles the peaceable activities of two buddies: the cheerful, athletic Frog and the slightly insecure Toad, who live in harmony with assorted birds, moles, squirrels and the very obnoxious Turtle. Robert Reale's light, jazzy score, harking back to tunes of the 1930s and '40s, buoys Willie Reale's wide-eyed lyrics. Will Gartshore gives us a Frog with dazzling, old-fashioned charisma. With his hyper-animated face percolating with Toad-like emotions -- disgruntlement, balefulness, perplexity -- Steve Tipton makes a droll counterweight to the debonair Frog, the difference in temperaments adding great sweetness to the musical's portrait of friendship.

-- Celia Wren

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.

-- N.P.