A shudder may run up your spine the first time you see a miniature white van in “Forest Treás,” a new experimental piece based on the 2002 D.C. sniper shootings. Writer Navid Azeez imagines a famously safe, quiet neighborhood — the enclave is the title of the show, and the second word is pronounced “triage” — but sticks close enough to true history that the production’s copious video even includes footage of police briefings.
The real subject is the media’s role during acts of public terrorism, and at times “Forest Treás” flirts with the ratings corrupt everything territory patented by “Network.” “It’s me, folks!” one of the residents says, driving his white van and looking into a camera with a performative grin. “I’m not the sniper!”
But the layered style of director Kelly Colburn’s production for Pointless Theatre is impressive, and thought-provoking. Utilizing miniature models, live feed video and understated acting, the show generates an expansiveness that fills the intimate Dance Loft on 14. As characters wrestle with what to do and how to act, your eye is drawn to multiple planes — an old-fashioned gas station, a toy-size parking lot, a small TV studio for the neighborhood’s upbeat daily “news” broadcasts hosted by the genial retiree Mr. Chylle (David S. Kessler).
Naturally, there are lots of video monitors, too, as Azeez’s plot involves a jaded documentarian named Roberta (Lee Gerstenhaber), who stumbles into the crisis and rides the adrenaline to a heightened sense of purpose. The show is more compelling as Azeez, who is also the show’s composer and sound designer, eases into the situation and as Coburn builds out the dense, fascinating theatrical vocabulary. Paradoxically, it slackens as the story increasingly relies on the facts of the sniper case — the fear, the confusion, the police briefings that only added to the public’s jitters.
Still, with a balanced ensemble of 10 performers etching distinct roles while handling cameras and sometimes acting in video close-ups, “Forest Treás” finds Pointless continuing to build creative muscle.
Puppetry has often been one of Pointless’s calling cards, but that’s currently a centerpiece for another sharp-edged small troupe as Spooky Action Theater stages the area premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy.” Ruhl’s drama involves an American mother married to a Tibetan man; their child, according to two Buddhist monks arriving unannounced from India, is the reincarnation of a recently deceased lama (teacher).
The child is embodied by a toddler-size puppet (built by Matthew Pauli) and voiced by an older man (Al Twanmo), which gives the kid an uncanny feel. Following tradition, the monks want to take the boy back to India to study in a monastery.
As we’ve come to expect with Ruhl, the tight script is funny and pensive. The mother, played with openheartedness and tenacity by Jenna Sokoloski, is a lapsed literary scholar; she is full of sarcastic barbs about academia and drawn to spiritualism. The father (a compellingly conflicted Rafael Untalan) is torn between his Tibetan traditions and love for his American wife. Their culture clash is saturated with affection.
That sentiment doesn’t make it easy as the mother contemplates giving up her son. Ruhl’s play cleverly balances emotion and logic, and Kathryn Chase Bryer’s staging in Spooky Action’s church basement space (on 16th Street NW) embraces a meditative tone. Scene transitions have a ceremonial air, and Steve Lee and Franklin Dam provide tranquil performances as the visiting lama and monk. Tuyet Thi Pham is credited as the movement director and music and cultural consultant, and the show’s Buddhist calm is enviable as it probes the terrible tensions between hanging on and letting go.
Forest Treás, by Navid Azeez. Directed by Kelly Colburn. Video and projections, Dylan Uremovich; set, Emily Lotz; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; lights, Max Doolittle; miniatures, Grace Guarniere; movement, Rachel Menyuk; props master, Adrianna Watson. With Sara Herrera, Timothy Thompson, Melissa Carter, Mason Catharini, Acacia Danielson, Nitsan Scharf, Eirin Stevenson and Eric Swartz. About 90 minutes. Through June 29 at Dance Loft on 14, 4618 14th St. NW. $30. pointlesstheatre.com. The Oldest Boy, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Set, Vicki R. Davis; costumes, Julie Cray Leong; lights, Max Doolittle; music and sound design, David Crandall; props design, Elizabeth Long. About 100 minutes. Through June 30 at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St. NW. $30-$40. 202-248-0301. spookyaction.org.