By the time we get to the year 3000 Baghdad is the capital of Britain, at least according to George Bernard Shaw’s astonishingly futuristic “Back to Methuselah.” But the setting is Ireland, where the people live to be 300 and where they dress vaguely like sailors, at least in the current production of this rarely seen five-part sci-fi series downtown at the Washington Stage Guild.
Meanwhile, uptown in Bethesda, pirates are spouting comic verses in the young Flying V Theatre’s “The Pirate Laureate and the King of the Sea.” The cute setup in Zachary Fernebok’s script is that although the buccaneers clank swords, the real duels are elegant poetry slams.
“Watch your mouth,” one character snarls when another lets loose with a mild profanity. “We’re pirates, not sailors.”
The adventurous “Pirate Laureate” and the brainy “Back to Methuselah” are both long, twisty fantasies and — not terribly common in the theater — second installments. Flying V, which will receive the prize for outstanding emerging company at April’s Helen Hayes Awards, is now offering Part Two of its original “Pirate” franchise, and it opens like a movie — big musical theme, opening credits, all that.
The jokes are light and fast, and the cast has an appealing way with the groaning puns. Carlos Saldana leads the way as the suave and treacherous Ray del Mar (King of the Sea, of course — there’s a lot of Spanish mixed in with the flamboyant Ray’s English). It’s easy to giggle along through the first act at the Writer’s Center, though you’re likely to wiggle with impatience as the frippery inexplicably dawdles into a nearly three-hour tour.
There’s a giant squid (an Ursula-like Natalie Cutcher, alongside two puppeteers working her tentacles), a one-eyed peg-legged woman with a hook for a hand, poetry throwdowns and some rambunctious rasslin’, and director Jason Schlafstein’s upbeat ensemble is good at a lot of the antic goings-on. But eventually this undisciplined camp caper bloats and sinks.
“Methuselah” isn’t nearly as lively, and the production at the Undercroft Theatre isn’t much to look at. In fact, your confidence may be rattled as soon as you see the skimpy gold crown and curly golden shoes worn by Conrad Feininger as a petulant British president in 2170 A.D. A cartoonish fractured fairy tale wouldn’t seem to be the best fit for Shaw.
But the Stage Guild has been acting Shaw for 30 years, and they can talk the fizzy intellectual talk. Where the plots and japes of “Pirates” wear you out, the visionary political ideas of “Methuselah” grow more interesting.
Producing the whole thing is a three-year project, and we’re now in the middle. Last year, the company staged the first two chapters, beginning in the Garden of Eden as man learns he’s mortal, then alighting in the early 20th century, where we discover we might live much longer.
We rejoin the action as “The Thing Happens” — certain people really begin to hang on for nearly three centuries. Why? Call it self-improvement. Shaw was writing in hot fury in the immediate wake of World War I. In “Methuselah’s” fourth play, “The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman,” Shaw pretty accurately forecasts World War II.
With a dramatically extended life span, Shaw suggests, just maybe we’ll grow smarter and less frivolous. The more the eccentric characters debate about “the claims of nationality,” as it’s put by the elderly gentleman played with wonderful British agitation by Vincent Clark, the more profound it all sounds. “We are a non-adult race,” one character declares, and the appearance of a new Napoleon (Feininger again, looking exactly like the old Napoleon) and British diplomats seeking inside information from a mystical oracle (Laura Giannarelli, her raven hair cascading over luscious robes) puts a sharp edge on Shaw’s satire and anger.
It’s a bookish production, for sure, and you may well leave the flat-looking, quirkily costumed show thinking there’s got to be a better way to stage this fantasia, even in the tight Undercroft. Still, under Bill Largess’s direction and judicious editing, Shaw’s arguments sound clearer and more urgent the further in you get.
A tighter script in a more ample space is the revival of British playwright Bryony Lavery’s grim “Frozen” in the high-ceilinged Anacostia Playhouse. The 90-minute, three-character drama about a pedophilic serial killer is directed with calm discipline by longtime D.C. performer-director Delia Taylor. The black box space is kept fairly dim, with the killer (a too-jittery Frank Bliss), a young victim’s mother (Adele Robey, peculiarly placid), and a psychiatrist (Jo Sullivan) delivering monologues in isolated pools of light until gradually the characters begin to face each other.
First performed in 1998, “Frozen” is a famously chilling study, and there are still layers of discomfort to be peeled away here: Only Sullivan hits a consistently convincing rhythm and edgy mood. Compared to the expansive “Pirate Laureate” and “Back to Methuselah,” these are traumatized, constricted lives viewed through a clinical microscope, with acting that you wish looked just a bit bigger.
By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Bill Largess. Setting, Shirong Gu; costumes, Debbie Kennedy; lights, Marianne Meadows; sound, Frank DiSalvo Jr. With Michael Avolio, Jacob Yeh, Brit Herring, Lynn Steinmetz and Stephanie Schmalzle. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through March 15 at the Undercroft Theatre in the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets $40-$50. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org
By Bryony Lavery. Directed by Delia Taylor. Scenic design, Robbie Hayes; lights, G. Ryan Smith; costumes, Michelle Elwyn; sound, Elliot Lanes. About 90 minutes. Through March 1 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. Tickets $25-$35. Visit www.anacostiaplayhouse.com
By Zachary Fernebok. Directed by Jason Schlafstein. Scenic design, Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.; music director/composer, Steve Przybylski; sound design, Neil McFadden; costumes, Zachary Fernebok. With Matthew Pauli, Farrell Parker, Bradley Foster Smith, Kaylynn Creighton, Matthew McGee, and Megan Reichelt. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through March 1 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Tickets $15. Visit www.flyingvtheatre.com