A winter blitz is hitting area stages, with enough on view to blanket every taste. At least nine shows opened over the weekend, and the three I caught included a lighthearted Mexican classic, an extreme farce (with cats) on terrorism, and a new “Turn of the Screw.”
That last title already has been endlessly adapted: it’s a well-known opera, a bunch of plays, and a ton of films. Now Henry James’s taut 1898 novella is getting a fresh musical ride as a handful of Signature Theatre vets premiere their work at Creative Cauldron, a comfortable black box on a Falls Church side street.
The music is by Matt Conner, whose nose for macabre 19th-century masterpieces has already led him to tackle Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving in Signature’s “Nevermore” and “The Hollow.” Conner’s piano-violin-cello score nicely suits the claustrophobic intimacy of the tale of Miss Giddens, the governess who sees ghosts and fears the worst about the two children she’s supposed to protect. He creates lovely melodies and then bends them into suspenseful, mysterious shapes; there are strains of puckish Stephen Sondheim (in a puzzle song, naturally) and a moment when Susan Derry’s Miss Giddens sounds near-operatic.
The solid cast features Sherri L. Edelen — Mama Rose in last season’s “Gypsy” at Signature — as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and her haunting number about the previous governess has an especially flickering beauty. Derry shines and crumbles nicely as the spooked Miss Giddens, with Ryan Sellers and Caitlin Shea adding a sinister air as the dead servants whose secrets get teased toward the light.
Conner shares directing and lyric duties with librettist Stephen Gregory Smith, another busy Signature artist, and their interpretation of James’s famously ambiguous events leans toward a cycle of abuse. (“Little” Miles is flirtatiously played by Ethan Miller, who is as tall as Derry.) You sense the team may still be refining the final sequence of their 90-minute show, but it’s an intriguing premiere.
The Mexican classic is by the fascinating Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century woman whose voracious appetite for literature and languages made her famous as a teenager; she chose a convent life so she could study and write. GALA Hispanic Theatre is staging her comic “Los Empenas de una casa” (translated here as “House of Desires”), and if the period script’s penchant for stretched-out convolution is at odds with our hurry-up tastes, director Hugo Medrano’s choice to stage it as a 1940s Mexican movie gives the show panache.
It also underscores de la Cruz’s satire and melodrama, with the women — sensible, elegant, passionate — generally coming off better than the men (preening, honor-bound). It’s a romantic pentagon: Three men and two women are in a roundelay, and that doesn’t count the two servants who strike the most delicious poses here, with Luz Nicolas (as a housekeeper) vamping hopefully against a doorframe and Carlos Castillo (servant to one of the suitors) donning drag as the complications pile up.
The peculiar mannerisms of the piece include scenes of the characters fumbling in the dark with the lights all the way up; that’s how blind these would-be lovers are. The 1940s style is established by Luciana Stecconi’s smart courtyard set and costume designer Ivania Stack’s sleek suits and gowns, and the acting (in Spanish with English surtitles) has a confident comic edge that’s more refined than slapsticky, even when a handsome caballero checks his reflection in the shiny metal handle of his pistol.
“Refined” is the wrong word for the farcical bloodbath “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Martin McDonagh’s brutal takedown of Irish terrorists. The show opens with the discovery of a dead cat, and in Constellation Theatre Company’s energetic production, director Matthew R. Wilson wastes no time landing a gross-out joke that’s right in keeping with the way McDonagh sadistically bathes the audience in gore.
The play sledgehammers its irony as the thugs of a terrorist splinter group channel any tender affections toward their pets, so mayhem is guaranteed once the ultra-violent Padraic learns that his black cat, Wee Thomas, has expired. McDonagh’s language can be irresistible as these “eejits” (a.k.a. “idiots”) spiral into stupefying debates on points of honor, but Wilson’s uneven cast is merely good at this, not inspired enough to leave you helpless at the verbal curlicues than send the moral compass spinning.
The bloodwork isn’t as pinpoint as it was when Signature did it several seasons ago, but the fights are excellent, and the pell-mell pace (with no intermission) erases a lot of shortcomings. Funny how the world works: The rampant farcical depiction of torture in this play, which premiered in London prior to 9/11, feels harder to laugh at just now. But the cartoonists always test us, so depending on your stance, the patterns of blood pooling on the floor and splattered on walls will look like ungoverned taste, or like a wild, apt reflection of the times.
Book by Stephen Gregory Smith, music by Matt Conner, lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner. Directed by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. Musical director, Alvin Smithson; scenic and costume design, Margie Jervis; lights, John Sami. With Libby Brooke. Through Feb. 22 at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. Call 703-436-9948 or visit www.creativecauldron.org. $22-$25. About 90 minutes.
By Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Directed by Hugo Medrano. Lights, Christopher Annas-Lee; sound design, Adam W. Johnson. With Natalia Miranda-Guzman, Miguel Alejandro Amaguana, Alina Collins Maldonado, Erick Sotomayor, Roberto Colmenares, Hector Diaz, Oscar Ceville and Mauricio Pita. Through March 1 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.galatheatre.org. $20-$42. About two hours and 15 minutes.
By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson. Scenic and light design, A.J. Guban; costumes, Kendra Rai; sound design, Neil McFadden. With Mark Lee Adams, Chris Dinolfo, Thomas Keegan, Megan Dominy, Matthew Ward, Daniel Flint, Joseph Carlson and Chris Stinson. Through March 8 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org. $20-$45. About 100 minutes.