Style is the velvet lure of the pleasurable “Three Sistahs” at MetroStage and the first of several things to resist in the abrasive “Submission,” Scena Theatre’s stage adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s paranoid right-wing nightmare of an Islamist Europe. Both shows are being presented by troupes that have been producing theater for more than three decades, but the approaches to identity couldn’t be further apart.
Set in 2022, the grim “Submission” unfolds in self-absorbed narration and ineffectual nattering about politics. The pompous chatter partly illustrates the point of what can happen to a distracted populace, but it’s also a tedious listen.
It’s tendentious, too, daring you to get on board with Houellebecq’s 2015 saga, published the day of the Paris attacks on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. The fable, hotly narrated by its central figure, follows a Parisian intellectual disaffected by politics and disenchanted by life, though still a little in thrall, in his 60s, to graphically described sexual encounters (but not to love).
Why, this lazy lout is perfectly vulnerable to a Muslim takeover! A European caliphate can’t be far behind.
You can see why the New York Times dubbed “Submission” an “ugly new novel,” so praising Ron Litman’s appropriately acidic performance as the narrator seems beside the point. For the record, note that Stacy Whittle confidently depicts French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and Greg Ongao coolly masters the rhetoric of demagogues as the fictional leader of a Muslim party leader who stunningly wins France’s presidential election. The show remains indigestible, both for its leaden literary style and for its substance as the Muslim victory in France leads to regressive, socially repressive policies.
You can argue, as “My Struggle” novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard has done, that Houellebecq’s subject is the malaise of the Everyman narrator, not the malign designs of Islam. That’s not clear in Robert McNamara’s prose-heavy production on the small stage at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. This far-right horror show’s boogeyman is equally within and without.
Style and substance swing together smoothly, on the other hand, in “Three Sistahs,” the musical fantasia by Thomas W. Jones II. The politics are lite as the story, set in 1969, explores the anxieties of three black siblings whose parents have died and whose brother has just been killed in Vietnam.
The three women grieve and heal with Chekhovian wistfulness through composer William Hubbard’s songs, a melodic cocktail of gospel, blues, soul and jazz. (Keyboardist and musical director William Knowles anchors the jazz trio just out of sight in the wings.) That music is sung to the nines by Ayana Reed, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Roz White; White, in particular, for years has been rock steady in MetroStage’s musicals.
The story is by Janet Pryce with poetic book, lyrics and direction by Jones segueing easily in and out of song. “Three Sistahs” is a staple of MetroStage’s repertoire, and the company planned this production as a farewell to its Alexandria theater. The site’s redevelopment has been postponed a few months — MetroStage has a new space planned in North Alexandria — but don’t be surprised to see this mellow selection pop up on the slate again.
Submission, by Michael Houellebecq. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, Leah Mazur; lights, Johnathan Alexander; costumes, Mei Chen; projections, Patrick Lord; sound design, Keith Alexander. With Kim Curtis and David Johnson. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 10 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. scenatheatre.org. Three Sistahs, by Janet Pryce and Thomas W. Jones II. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Set consultant, Carl Gudenius; lights, Alexander Keen; costumes, Michael Sharp; sound design, William G. Wacker. About two hours. Through Feb. 24 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal Street, Alexandria. $55. 703-548-9044. metrostage.org.
Read more in theater: