We knew that romantic poet Lord Byron was a bad boy, but a sassy rock star? That’s how Sam Ludwig plays him in the premiere of “Monsters of the Villa Diodati” at the tiny Creative Cauldron in Falls Church, another pocket Gothic from the team that created last year’s musical “ Turn of the Screw .”
The music is by Matt Conner, who wrote Signature Theatre’s Edgar Allan Poe musical, “Nevermore,” and the Washington Irving riff “The Hollow,” with a book by longtime Signature performer Stephen Gregory Smith. The duo gravitates toward dark, creepy, over-the-top material — they’ve done a “Night of the Living Dead” musical, too — so the famous summer when Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Polidori flirted with free love and invented the horror genre must have been irresistible.
Conner’s score flirts with camp in its strutting, Jaggerlike Byron, played with devilish screeches by a leering Ludwig; there is a pop pulse under many of the tunes. But introspective, powerful ballads dominate as these historical figures grapple with a variety of urges and temptations.
You know the story: Dr. Polidori, a lesser sidekick to the godlike Byron, emerges from the summer with a vampire tale, and Mary Shelley dreams up “Frankenstein.” The show’s plot is interested in the attractions, jealousies and incidents that led to this bizarre fertility, and it takes expected liberties.
“That’s not how it happened,” a character remarks at one point.
Smith directs a confident production with persuasive period costumes by Lynn Joslin and a set with one good creepy secret by Margie Jervis. The five-person cast is snappy, led by Ludwig, Alan Naylor as a sexually confused Percy Shelley stalked by the ravenous Byron, and Susan Derry as a sober Mary Shelley. “Monsters” is not yet a striking retelling of this legendary interlude, but there is a lurking grandeur that might be worth exploring on a bigger stage (and with more than the three musical instruments playing the score here).
In nearby Tysons Corner, Andrew Bovell’s “When the Rain Stops Falling” arrives ballyhooed as the best new play of 2010, according to Time Magazine.
It doesn’t take long to see what the holdup was for this regional premiere, despite an absolutely first-rate production by director Michael Dove at 1st Stage. An hour into this overly literary two-hour play, you still barely have an idea what’s at stake as the story toggles from 1953 England to 2039 Australia.
It’s not confusing; it’s just boring, until at last it isn’t. The final half-hour is indeed gripping, slotting its clues into place like a well-engineered puzzle — which is exactly what this drama is. If you have a taste for withheld information and dots connected at the last second, this is for you.
What’s it about? It hinges on a criminal act that can’t be spoiled here. But one man’s tragic monstrousness creates family scars that last for generations.
Dove’s staging is exemplary: It unfolds on a static, antiseptic set by Luciana Stecconi that does not change (bare stage, rustic dining table, gauzy back walls) even as the plot hops around in time. (Kelsey Hunt’s costumes anchor the characters from period to period, and Brittany Diliberto’s lights are pivotal.) The eight actors nail the tone of Bovell’s intimate dialogue as this doomed clan broods through a variety of marriages, romances and extremely fraught parent-child relationships. The startling, logical finish may send you out feeling good about this bookish drama — that is, if the circuitous script hasn’t already burned up your patience.
music by Matt Conner, book by Stephen Gregory Smith, lyrics by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. Directed by Stephen Gregory Smith. Lights, Lynn Joslin. With David Landstrom and Catherine Purcell. About two hours and 10 minutes. Through Feb. 21 at Creative Cauldron. Tickets $18-$26. Call 703-436-9948 or visit www.creativecauldron.org
by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Michael Dove. Sound design, Sarah O’Halloran. With Scott Ward Abernethy, Mark Lee Adams, Frank Britton, Teresa Castracane, Kari Ginsburg, Amy McWilliams, Dylan Morrison Myers and Sara Dabney Tisdale. About two hours. Through Feb. 28 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Tickets $15-$30. Call 703-854-1856 or visit www.1stagetysons.org